Brian Cooksey is coming on at the right time.
The senior center helped Merced stave off Golden Valley's upset bid with 21 points and 10 rebounds, including the eventual game-winning layup with 15 seconds left to propel Merced to a 57-55 win on Friday night at Merced College.
"I don't even know what happened," said Cooksey about the final play. "Jaquari (People) cut inside and I saw the ball go up. It was deflected. I was able to gather it and go up."
Golden Valley's Trek Fayerweather and Justin Wootten both misfired on 3-point attempts in the final seconds just before the Merced student section exploded onto the court.
It was a celebration that almost didn't happen as Merced squandered a 15-point lead in the second half.
Merced struggled to get in any type of offensive rhythm against Golden Valley.
It was off nights for the usually consistent Reggie Nelson (nine points) and Tyrone Bowie (six points).
"Golden Valley had a lot to do with it," said Marcus Knott, whose team improved to 9-1 in the Central California Conference and 21-4 overall. "It wasn't all us not playing well.
"They took us out of what we like to do. When they were down, I thought they made some big plays to keep them in the game.
"In the end, it's high school basketball. Your guys have to make plays and we were able to make the last one."
Cooksey is coming off his best week of the season with his 18 points and nine rebounds against Turlock and season-high 29 points against Atwater.
The 6-foot, 4-inch center scored 10 points in the second quarter to help Merced take a 33-24 lead into the half.
Cooksey also made Golden Valley center Garrett Hill a non-factor for most of the game.
"Brian's making it a point to be big in the paint and that's what we need him to do," Knott said. "The last few years I've heard if only we had a big man. Well, we have one now and he's playing like it."
Still, Golden Valley (5-5 CCC, 13-12) had yet another shot to upset one of the CCC's top teams.
Golden Valley closed out the third quarter with a 13-5 run to cut Merced's lead to 46-39.
Larry Moore scored seven of his 11 points in the final 1:44 of the quarter.
Moore and company cut the lead to four points early in the fourth quarter.
"We were up 15, it seemed like we had a comfortable lead," Cooksey said. "I remember going to the free-throw line and looking up at the scoreboard and seeing our lead was down to four. I remember thinking, 'What's going on?' "
Justin Wootten finally pulled GV even at 55-55 with a pair of free throws with 1:02 left in the game. The Golden Valley senior finished with a team-high 12 points.
"That was a positive to see," Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. "We haven't fought back much after being down this year. I was pleased to see our guys stick with it and battle back to give us a chance."
Golden Valley did have its chance.
A Merced turnover gave GV the ball with the game still tied in the final minute, but Fayerweather launched a 3-pointer that was off target.
Merced came down and Jaquari People set up the winning basket by penetrating against GV's zone and finding Cooksey cutting inside for an easy layup with 15 seconds left.
Hunter decided against calling a timeout and his team failed to get a good look at the basket in the final seconds.
"We had a hard time getting the ball up against the pressure," Hunter said. "I thought our best chance was to get the ball inbounds quickly and go.
"I thought we would attack the rim. Looking back, I wish I would have called timeout."
The win keeps Merced all alone atop the CCC one game ahead of Turlock with two games left.
Golden Valley goes into the final week likely needing wins over Pitman and Atwater to make the playoffs.
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Golden Valley 10 14 15 16 -- 55
Merced 10 23 13 11 -- 57
GOLDEN VALLEY -- Rob Martinez 8, Blake Rice 2, Richard Thomas 11, Trek Fayerweather 6, Larry Moore 11, Justin Wootten 12, Garrett Hill 5. Totals: 18 15-22 55.
MERCED -- Jaquari People 4, Otis Caery 6, Reggie Nelson 9, Brian Cooksey 21, Tyrone Bowie 6, Manny Orozco 2, Marques Barron 7. Totals: 21 11-24 57.
3-pointers: Golden Valley 4 (Wootten 2, Moore 1, Thomas 1), Merced4 (Caery 2, People 1, Barron 1); Total Fouls: Golden Valley 21, Merced 18; Foul Outs: Bowie (M); Technicals: None.
Records: Golden Valley 5-5 CCC, 13-12 overall; Merced 9-1 CCC, 21-4.
JV -- Golden Valley won 57-38.