MODESTO — Four perfect touches is what it took.
The Modesto soccer team's defense had proven stout all evening, only allowing Merced a handful of clear-cut chances in Tuesday night's Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 first-round playoff game.
The Panthers were strong, fast and in the hip pocket of the Bears' skill players for most of the evening.
But Merced kept probing and finally found the little bit of space it needed in the 78th minute, carving up Modesto's defense like a Halloween Jack-o'-lantern for the game's only goal in a 1-0 victory at Downey High.
Jovan Prado got the sequence started, receiving the ball in the middle of the field. He one-timed a curling pass into the path of a sprinting William Gomez inside the Panthers 18-yard box.
Gomez one-timed a cross through the 6-yard box where Meng Moua pounced with a sliding finish.
The No. 12 Bears (12-7-8) will travel to No. 4 Armijo on Thursday for the quarterfinals after the Indians beat Edison 5-2.
"It's great playing with these guys so long that we know exactly where we'll be on a play like that," said Moua, whose game-winning goal in the final minutes last week got Merced into the playoffs. "That goal made me so happy.
"We knew at halftime that they were going to keep coming at us, and we needed to just keep our cool and keep pressing.
"We got it done."
No. 5 Modesto (16-6-4) came very close to being the team that drew first blood just 14 minutes earlier.
The Merced defense had shown few cracks all night, but got caught out of position in the 64th minute when Christian Robles threaded a cross through the Bear 6-yard box.
The Panthers had a golden chance for a tap-in, but shanked the shot. Merced goalkeeper Asad Sohail (seven saves) made a diving save but couldn't control the rebound. That gave Panthers striker Carlos Garcia another shot, but Sohail somehow managed to keep the ball out while still lying on the ground.
"I didn't think I had a chance to be honest," said Sohail, who made just his third start of the season in the net. "I got a piece of it and then the ball came back to me and I dove on it. Next thing I know I'm getting kicked."
A scrum ensued. Several pushes were exchanged, and when the referee calmed things down, Merced's Ricky Aguilera and Modesto's Garcia were shown red cards.
The result was far more devastating to the Panthers, losing their top goal scorer and who had been their most dangerous player on the night.
"That definitely hurt," Modesto coach Matt Mendes said. "To come that close to scoring and then to have one of our best players sent off like that, it left us reeling a little bit."
The red cards were just two in a flurry of cards issued in the second half after the referee handed out none in a very physical opening 40 minutes.
Five yellow cards were dished out and four reds, including a costly one to Prado after the game was over for taunting.