PATTERSON -- The fans in Livingston might argue, but Patterson High has the best collection of athletes playing basketball in the Western Athletic Conference.
Getting the group to play together as a team has been the season-long headache of coach Tony Lomeli.
Prior to Tuesday's game against Hilmar, after another practice in which the Tigers' second team outplayed the starters, Lomeli decided on a platoon substitution system as a way to reward his second team with playing time.
It nearly backfired, as Patterson (16-6, 7-3 WAC) scrambled in the final minute to eke out a 61-58 victory over the Yellowjackets (12-10, 3-7).
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
"I never like doing that, but in the last few practices the second team has beaten the heck out of the first team," Lomeli said. "Yesterday, it was 22-2. They've earned the playing time."
But the reason the game was close had nothing to do with the platooning, and everything to do with Hilmar's 32-minute effort, led by junior Quinton McCown.
The 6-foot-3-inch forward, who quarterbacked the Yellowjackets to a section football title, scored 22, including 10 in a row for Hilmar in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Included in that run was a baseline drive and an out-of-nowhere one-handed clean slam over the top of Patterson center Felix Mapanda.
"I'm speechless on that dunk," said Hilmar coach Danny Freitas. "Quinton went strong to the basket, which he knows he can, and he did it."
The dunk, with 3 minutes, 16 seconds remaining, pulled Hilmar within 50-48. Fifty seconds later, when McCown scored on a fast break, the last vestige of what had been a nine-point Patterson lead was gone.
Hilmar had three leads in the final two minutes, two on back-to-back 3-pointers by Noel Zaldana, and the final one, 58-57, with 57 seconds left on two free throws by Trent Golburn.
But Mapanda, who led the Tigers with 17 points, got inside for the go-ahead basket with 41 seconds left. After Zaldana missed the front end of a one-and-one with 29 seconds remaining, Ronyea Ellington put back a rebound with 11 seconds left to account for the final score.
Hilmar's attempt to free Zaldana for one final 3-point attempt resulted in a wild 25-footer at the buzzer.
And as for the Patterson platoon? It might return.
"I needed to open the eyes of the first group," Lomeli said. "I enjoyed coaching tonight and I enjoyed watching our second team play."