Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter has raved about how senior Lee McNeill has done everything he’s asked of him all season.
That didn’t change on Wednesday night.
With the game on the line, Hunter drew up a play for McNeill to score and that’s what he did. McNeill drove left from the top of the key and went straight to the rim for a basket with 19 seconds left as the Cougars scored the final 12 points of the game to defeat Merced 39-38 at Clemons Court.
“Coach set it up and I had to score,” McNeill said. “I scored for him because that’s what he wanted me to do.”
It was an improbable comeback with Golden Valley (14-12, 7-3 Central California Conference) facing a 38-27 deficit with 5 minutes left. Especially in a game dominated by both defenses.
“At one point I looked at (assistant) Jerry (Stillahn) and we joked the first one to 40 wins,” Hunter said. “Thank, God it was 39. There was a lot of intensity and a lot of good defense. It was not easy to score. It’s the end of the of the year and we’ve had a couple guys play a lot of minutes.”
McNeill and fellow senior Isaac Daniel have carried the Cougars at times this season and they put their team on their back again on Wednesday night, scoring the final 10 points of the game.
Daniel led Golden Valley with 14 points and hit four big free throws in the final 4:25 to help pull Golden Valley within 38-35.
McNeill then scored the final two baskets on drives to the basket to finish off the win.
“That was sheer will and determination by a senior giving everything he can out there,” Hunter said. “He’s worked as hard as anyone we’ve had and tonight good things happened to good people. Him and Isaac both.”
It was another punch to the stomach for Merced, which has had its share of gut-wrenching losses in CCC play.
The Bears just haven’t been able to close out the close games.
Merced lost in double overtime in the first matchup with GV and later a two-point loss at home against Turlock.
The Bears appeared to be in control of the game. A.J. Stewart had scored the final seven points of the third quarter for Merced to give the Bears a 29-24 lead. Stewart, who had been Merced’s closer the last two games with 15 points in the fourth quarter against Pitman and 10 in the fourth against Atwater, looked like he was heating up.
Stewart (16 points) scored two early baskets in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 38-27, but Merced went scoreless the final 5:23.
“It’s extremely tough,” said Bears coach Hector Nava, whose team finished the regular season 17-10 and 6-4. “As a coach I need to put our kids in a position to succeed and I didn’t do that. I think to be an elite team you have to be able to execute when it matters. At times were able to execute, but there’s a reason we’re in third place.”
The Bears had an opportunity to win the game at the buzzer, but Tyler Davis’ shot was off the mark. As the buzzer sounded the GV students rushed the floor.
“That was amazing,” Daniel said. “To have our crowd rush the court and our bench. It was a great feeling.”
Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.