As Xavier Stewart’s final-second shot glanced off the rim the celebration began.
El Capitan sophomore Dillon Greenwood launched himself into the air. Marcus McCutchen started running to the Gauchos bench. The El Capitan student section immediately spilled onto the floor as the Gauchos celebrated a heart-stopping 63-61 win over Merced in double overtime on Friday night in front of a packed and very loud Stable Center.
The win clinched at least a share of the Central California Conference for El Capitan (20-5, 9-1 CCC). A few moments after the game, the Gauchos players learned that Golden Valley had also lost to Turlock on Friday night and they came running out of their team room to celebrate an outright CCC championship with the fans left in the gym.
“Right now, just pinch me,” said El Capitan coach Adrian Hurtado. “I’m at a lost for words. These games are so emotional.”
Merced (13-11, 3-6 CCC) came out playing for its playoff life and took a 32-21 lead into the half. Jeremy Redwine had one of his best games of his career, finishing with a game-high 32 points.
However, the Bears watched another close game trickle away. All six of Merced’s CCC losses have been by seven points or less.
None more frustrating then on Wednesday night when Merced blew a 22-point lead against Pitman. If the Bears forgot, there was an El Capitan fan reminding them with a giant picture of the Merced scoreboard showing the 22-0 score against Pitman.
The Bears had another big lead against El Capitan. Merced opened the second half with two quick baskets to build the lead to 15 points, but again couldn’t close it out. The Gauchos answered with a 17-0 run in the third quarter.
“We’ve been in every game this whole season,” said Merced coach Hector Nava. “We just haven’t had the poise to finish at the end. We have the heart of a tiger. Our guys play extremely hard, but there comes a point in the game where you have got to have the poise at the end.”
It Greenwood triggering the Gauchos’ comeback in the third quarter. At one point, the sophomore guard scored 10 consecutive points during El Capitan’s 17-0 run. Greenwood hit two 3-pointers and scored inside twice.
“I think my teammates realized I had the hot hand,” said Greenwood, who finished with 14 points. “They kept feeding me the ball.”
The Gauchos’ run gave them a 38-36 lead with 2:59 left in the third quarter. The game was nip and tuck the rest of the way with eight lead changes and eight ties in the second half.
Trailing 52-49 with 16 seconds left, Nava drew up a play for Anthony Robinson to come off a screen for a 3-pointer. Robinson misfired, but he was fouled by El Capitan’s Marcus McCutchen with 5.5 seconds left. Robinson calmly drained all three free throw to tie the score at 52-52 to send the game to overtime.
“This game came down to discipline,” Hurtado said. “We foul a three-point shooter, a mistake like that could have cost us the game. Little things like boxing out, missing a free throw, one mistake could lose a game. Luckily we made one less mistake tonight.”
Both teams managed just four points each in the first overtime and Angel Serena (20 points) missed a 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer.
McCutchen (11 points) started the second overtime with a 3-pointer as El Capitan built a 62-58 lead with 1:38 left on the clock.
Robinson drained a deep 3-pointer to pull the Bears within 62-61 with 1:02 left. Merced then got a stop, but Serena stripped Stewart to come away with a steal at midcourt and drew a foul.
With the El Capitan students chanting M-V-P, Serena made one of two free throws to extend the lead to 63-61 with 23 seconds left.
Merced didn’t get a good look on its final possession as Stewart had to launch a 3-pointer from about 27 feet as the buzzer sounded.
“I have so much respect for coach Nava,” Hurtado said. “He’s won a lot of games. I told our guys a team with their backs against the wall are the scariest to play. We knew they were going to give us everything they had. They hit us in the mouth early and our guys finally responded.”