MERCED -- All was well with Merced High when it blazed out to a 15-point fourth-quarter lead against Pitman on Wednesday night. But the Bears almost crashed when they couldn't find the button to switch into cruise control.
The visiting Pride took advantage of some poor shot selection to go on a 12-1 run to cut the Bears' lead to four points with 90 seconds left before Merced was able to settle down and claim a 61-56 victory in a Central California Conference boys' basketball game.
"I didn't think we played very smart down the stretch," said Bears coach Marcus Knott. "We give our guys a lot of freedom and at some stretches in the game it was working out for us. But as a team, we have to start recognizing when it's time to knuckle down and get good shots."
Merced improved to 2-0 in the CCC and 10-7 overall with its fourth straight win. The Pride, which entered on a four-game winning streak, fell to 1-1 in conference and 11-5 overall.
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The Bears took control late in the second quarter when Pitman point guard Austin Keaton (20 points) went to the bench with his second foul. Merced led 23-20 when the Pride leader took a seat, then closed the half on a 10-0 run, with Kenny Cooper having his way inside to score eight of his 12 points in a span of 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
The Bears, behind the 20 points of Jarrett Sparks and 17 of Allen Huddleston Jr., built the margin to 19 points late in the third quarter. They would need all of that margin after a series of quick and forced shots paved the way for a Pitman rally.
"That's a little bit of our youth," Sparks said. "We only have two seniors and maybe we're a little immature. But we weathered the storm, so that showed character on our part."
The game still appeared well in hand when Keaton was whistled for a technical foul with 5:28 left and Pitman trailing by 15. Keaton again took to the bench, but the suddenly inspired Pride got six points from center Adam Lewallen to cut the gap to 54-50 with 1:27 left.
Pitman then got a defensive stop, but Merced guard Bernard Bolden intercepted a pass and dunked it home on the other end to make it 56-50 with 1:14 remaining, ending the run.
"I'm taking my hats off to my kids for their fourth quarter and having the opportunity to have a chance at the end of the game when we could have folded," said Pitman coach Harvey Marable.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.