TURLOCK -- When Merced High and Pitman meet on the basketball court, the high level of guard play makes it a game of high-stakes poker.
And once again, the Bears' pair of kings was too much for the Pride's single ace.
Allen Huddleston scored 27 points and Jarrett Sparks added 24 Friday night to account for all but nine of the Bears' points as Merced defeated Pitman 60-57, despite the 24 points of Austin Keaton.
"There's no other two-guard combination in the area like the one that Merced has," Keaton said. "They gave it to us pretty good last time and we just had to do what we could to slow them down."
Pitman did manage to slow down the Bears, but only after Merced put up 40 first-half points -- including 29 in the second quarter -- to take an eight-point halftime lead.
The Bears would score only 20 points in the second half, none during a 4-minute, 11-second span during the fourth quarter in which Pitman scored nine consecutive points to pull within 56-54 with 2:07 remaining.
"They're a good defensive team, and when we slowed it down in the fourth quarter to try to run out the game ... it was hard to turn it back on again," said Merced coach Marcus Knott.
The Pride had one chance to take the lead, taking possession of the ball trailing 58-57 after a Merced turnover with 55 seconds left. Pitman got the ball to Sam Madden in the right corner, but the senior's 3-point attempt rattled in-and-out.
Merced, The Bee's top-ranked large school team, then worked the clock and got insurance when Huddleston drove and handed to Kenneth Cooper for a layup with 15 seconds left. Pitman's last shot ended up in the hands of Keaton, whose contested 3-pointer with four seconds left caught the back iron.
"This was real fun," Huddleston said. "The crowd was into it when we played them at our place and it was alive here. You get a vibe from the crowd that gets you going."
The win gave the Bears complete control of the title race in the Central California Conference. Merced, which has won 10 consecutive games, is 16-7 overall and 8-0 in the CCC. Pitman, which also received 16 points from Adam Lewallen, fell to 15-7 and 6-3. The Pride had won 12 consecutive games on its home court, a streak dating to a 59-48 Merced victory on Jan. 10, 2007, the last time the Bears came around.
"I don't mind what Pitman does when we're not here," Knott said, "and I certainly don't mind winning here."