The Merced College men’s basketball sophomores entered the season with a single goal: Bring the Blue Devils’ program back to relevance.
One by one, Bill Russell’s squad checked items off its list that hadn’t happened on campus in at least a decade.
Merced (17-10, 9-5 Central Valley Conference) turned in its first winning campaign since the 2006-07 season. The Blue Devils upset CVC champ Fresno City on the road and entered the NorCal and state rankings for the first time in a decade. The only thing left was securing the team’s first playoff appearance in 10 years.
It took a little extra time on the final day of the regular season, but Merced College checked off that final box with a 104-97 overtime victory over Porterville at Don Reid Court on Saturday afternoon. The Blue Devils probably had a strong-enough résumé to earn an at-large playoff berth anyway, but the victory, coupled with Columbia’s loss, left the teams tied for second place. Merced earned the automatic playoff spot because of its season sweep of Columbia.
The sophomores led the way on the historic evening. Deonta Woodard scored five of his game-high 27 points in overtime. Three points came from the line as Merced drilled 12 of 14 free-throw attempts in the extra period to put away the game.
Six Blue Devils scored in double digits, including Jose Gonzalez (19 points), Anthony Nolen (17), Josh Willingham (14), Byron Brummel (12) and John Zaragoza (10).
The playoff brackets will be announced Monday.
UC Merced 64, Simpson 61 in Merced – Branson Garcia (team-high 19 points) and Matt Laflin (18 points, team-high 12 rebounds) helped the Bobcats (8-18, 6-8 California Pacific Conference) erase a 12-point second-half deficit and close the season with a victory Sunday.
Cole Taira had 12 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals, and Ronnie Kozak (10 points, nine rebounds) just missed a double-double for UCM.
Simpson 68, UC Merced 67 in Merced – Fallon Greenhaw’s bucket with 41 seconds left proved to be the winner for the Redhawks (17-13, 10-4 Cal Pac) as the Bobcats couldn’t hold a five-point lead with just under 3 minutes to play Saturday night.
Courtney Danna paced UCM (15-11, 9-5) with 14 points, five assists and four steals, while Mia Shannon and Aubrey Hayes each supplied 12 big points off the bench. The loss dropped Merced to fourth place in the Cal Pac and ensured it will open against top-seeded Antelope Valley in the conference tournament at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Merced College 81, Porterville 48 in Merced – Salihah Bey closed out an impressive freshman campaign in style, going for 27 points and 10 rebounds in a Lady Devil rout of the Pirates on Saturday. Bey averaged 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
Samantha James scored 18 points in her final game for the Lady Devils (14-15, 6-6 CVC), and Champelle Kelly had 15 points, nine steals and seven rebounds.