Trailing 30-24 at halftime, Spanish Springs opened the second half on an 11-3 run capped by a Brian Smith putback. The spurt forged Spanish Springs ahead 35-33 with 4:13 to go in the third period.
Unfortunately for Spanish Springs, the outburst seemed to prove as a wake-up call for Merced. The visiting Bears responded by outscoring Spanish Springs 16-4 through the remainder of the quarter. That left the California club with a 49-39 lead heading into the fourth period.
Spanish Springs made its early third-quarter run with a stretch of balanced offense, getting transition buckets and going inside-out with its big men. Merced stemmed that tide when it started to execute its offense to perfection, beating the Cougars for layups off back-door cuts and then knocking down open looks when the Cougars’ defense adjusted and sagged back.
“They did expose us, but it’s nothing we coaches didn’t already know,” Spanish Springs coach Kyle Penney said. “We told the kids today that they were taking too many chances on defense and sometime in the future if we took those chances a team would embarrass us. Now they know.”
Spanish Springs was never able to put a scare into Merced in the fourth. Brandon DeLong knocked down a pair of foul shots with 1:08 left in the game to make it a 12-point margin, 63-51. However that’s as close as the gap was after the 10-point margin to start the quarter.
“I’m very happy defensively,” Merced coach Marcus Knott said. “We talked a lot about better pressure on the ball and off-side help. We did a good job playing as a unit defensively as opposed to just saying ‘I’ve got my guy.’”
A night after getting three players in double figures in a 55-40 win over Bear River, Calif., the Cougars did not get much offense apart from DeLong. He poured in a game-high 23 points, but no other SSHS player had more than six points.
Spanish Springs struggled to score much at the rim. Merced limited the SSHS squad’s transition points and, unlike the Bears, the Cougars did not get much from their half-court offense. Spanish Springs buried nine 3-pointers in its win Friday, but came up with only three Saturday.
“We talked about our size advantage before the game and at halftime, but we’re not there as players yet,” Penney said. “Merced had outstanding ball pressure and that kept us from doing what we wanted. We were basically embarrassed in all ways, me included. I didn’t do a good job coaching.”
Four Merced players found double digits in the scoring column. Mike Elsberry led the bears with 18 points. Jacoury People and Rene Cavazos finished with 14 and 13 respectively, while Jose Campos chipped in 10.
The Cougars looked ready to roll through the initial five minutes of play. A Tanner Oates 3-pointer from the corner and a DeLong putback on back-to-back possessions saw Spanish Springs lead 11-4 with 3:07 to go in the first quarter.
But a romp for the home team was not meant to be. Merced closed the first quarter on a 12-4 run and led 16-13 after the first eight minutes of action. The Bears kept that momentum by scoring nine of the first 11 points in the second quarter. Elsberry had eight of those points in the key spurt.
The burst gave Merced its first double-digit lead of the game, 25-15. Spanish Springs answered with a 9-2 run of its own, concluded by a DeLong 3-pointer, and the two teams wound up going into the break with Merced holding the 30-24 lead.
Spanish Springs returns to the hardwood Tuesday for a Northern 4A crossover league game at Bishop Manogue. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.