SACRAMENTO -- Otis Caery pulled his jersey over his head to hide the tears with about 2 minutes left on the clock.
Marques Barron did his best to console his teammates in a silent Merced locker room.
The realization that Merced's bid for a section championship was over hit hard.
Ultimately, Sheldon was too big and too talented, dispatching of Merced 92-75 in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals on Thursday at Arco Arena.
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"I've never felt something that hurt this bad," said Merced senior Reggie Nelson. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I'm never going to get this opportunity again. It feels like something died inside of me right now."
No. 6 seed Sheldon (25-5) entered the playoffs as the team nobody wanted to play.
Darius Nelson and company showed why on Thursday.
Sheldon took control of the game in the second quarter, outscoring Merced 27-10 to open up a 51-30 lead by halftime.
Sheldon couldn't miss, making 20 of 32 shots from the floor. Sheldon pulled down eight offensive rebounds on the 12 shots it did miss in the first half.
It was Nelson leading the way, scoring 10 of his 34 points in the second quarter.
"We went out and did what we couldn't do: we turned the ball over and let them get easy baskets in transition," said Merced coach Marcus Knott, whose team dropped to 25-5. "If you give talented players open shots, they're going to make them."
Merced had fought its way back into the game with a 10-4 run to end the first quarter. Otis Caery and Jaquari People both knocked down 3-pointers in the final 1 minute and 20 seconds to help Merced cut Sheldon's lead to 24-20.
Then Sheldon took over.
Costly Merced turnovers turned into Sheldon fast breaks and it didn't take long before Merced was starting at a 47-27 deficit.
"They came back and went on a tear," Knott said. "A lot of times in the game of basketball you spend so much energy coming back. We fought back and then after they called a timeout, we had a letdown.
"By the time we got going again we were in too big of a hole to climb out of."
Merced picked up its level of play in the second half.
Nelson and Tyrone Bowie combined for 15 points in a third quarter that saw Merced creep within 65-50 heading into the fourth quarter.
Merced cut the deficit to 67-58 with 5:55 remaining, but Sheldon answered back and quickly put the game back out of reach.
Nelson and Brian Cooksey each scored 18 points for Merced, and Bowie added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
"We played a lot more aggressive in the second half," Knott said. "I thought we played passive in the first half as far as attacking the rim."
Sheldon advances to Saturday's championship game against top-seeded Franklin, which came back in the second half to defeat Turlock 70-66 in the other semifinal on Thursday.
Merced will now wait until Sunday to find out its first-round opponent in the NorCal playoffs.
"We just didn't get it done," Reggie Nelson said. "Everyone is disappointed, but the good thing is we still have another game. Our season isn't over."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Arco Arena
Sheldon 24 27 14 27 -- 92
Merced 20 10 20 25 -- 75
SHELDON -- Mansel Simmons 6, Darius Nelson 34, Eric Williams 19, Raymond Dickson 5, Kyiron Thomas 2, Dakarai Allen 6, Ramon Eaton 11, Derryl Williams 9. Totals: 34 19-25 92.
MERCED -- Otis Caerry 11, Reggie Nelson 18, Brian Cooksey 18, Marques Barron 3, Jaquari People 7, Yingkong Moua 2, Tyrone Bowie 16. Totals: 26 19-25 75.
3-pointers: Sheldon 5 (Williams 2, Nelson 1, Dickson 1, Eaton 1), Merced 4 (Caery 3, People 1); Rebounds: Sheldon 42 (Dickson 11, Nelson 9, Simmons 8), Merced 35 (Bowie 10, Cooksey 9); Assists: Sheldon 15 (Williams 4), Merced 7 (Nelson 3); Team Fouls: Sheldon 16, Merced 16; Fouled Out: Simmons (S), Barron (M).
Records: Sheldon 25-5, Merced 25-5.