First-year Atwater coach Tony Hillyer looked around at the boys basketball team he was taking over and believed it was playoff capable.
Coming off of a 5-22 season and 1-14 Central California Conference showing, few -- his players included -- shared Hillyer's optimism.
Hillyer eventually swayed the Falcons to his way of thinking, however, and the team repaid that faith on Friday night with its second, fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory in three days.
Daniel Motz sank three straight free throws with 42 seconds left to put Atwater up for good in a 53-47 victory over Merced at Clemons Court.
The victory gives Atwater 15 for the season and secures a spot in the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.
"All the credit goes to these kids," Hillyer said. "They bought into everything I told them and are starting to show that chemistry we lacked earlier in the season, on the court.
"You have to give it to Merced. They came out and hit us in the mouth.
"But this team has been in so many close games, they don't panic anymore. They know how to get it done in the stretch."
Friday looked like the perfect trap game for the Falcons (15-8, 4-2 CCC) coming off of Wednesday's big upset of Buhach Colony and with a convincing win over Merced already under their belts.
Merced (8-13, 1-5 CCC) led throughout and threatened to break the game open with five minutes to go.
A David Keys (nine points) putback gave the Bears their biggest lead of the second half at 43-35.
But Atwater came storming back.
A Hector Rodriguez layup trimmed the lead to one, and Motz gave the Falcons their first lead of the game by sinking a pair of free throws with 1:07 to play.
Keith Bolden (team-high 10 points) answered with a free throw to tie the game at 46-46 with 56.7 seconds left.
Atwater went to Motz.
The senior guard's 3-pointer from the wing came up short, but he was fouled on the play.
Motz sank all three free throws and the Bears never challenged again. Atwater made 12 straight free throws in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
"We've struggled with free throws all year, so it was nice for us to step up as a team and finish the game that way," said Motz, who finished with a game-high 12 points. "They're a very physical team, so we had to change our style and push back.
"We upped our play late and pulled it out."
Corbett McDaniel had nine very big points for Atwater, while Jeremy Busko chipped in eight points, four steals and three assists for the Bears.