MERCED — Lou Collier didn’t need to look far for answers as to where things went wrong, Friday night.
His Rodriguez High girls basketball team lost its Sac-Joaquin Section outbracket game against Merced at the free throw line.
The Mustangs have had their free throw woes, shooting just 52 percent as a team from the foul line on the season. But the Clemons Court rims proved particularly unkind as a 13 for 33 performance sealed their fate in a 67-57 loss. The Bears helped their cause by sinking 23 of 32 from the line.
“Our free throw shooting has been up and down,” Collier said. “There’s definitely been a couple close games we would have won if we’d knocked down our free throws.
“Tonight was particularly tough, though. Especially since we’re doing the things we want to do, driving to the basket and drawing fouls. But each one of those misses is a momentum killer.”
It definitely held true as Rodriguez couldn’t seem to grab any momentum through the first three quarters and headed to the fourth down 16 points.
All of that changed in the first 58 seconds of the fourth quarter.
The Mustangs (16-11) turned up the heat defensively and immediately trimmed the lead to 50-40 with a 6-0 run. Briana Hayles (17 points) capped it with a steal and layup, forcing a Merced timeout.
Rodriguez kept chipping away from there.
Janessa Boling (team-high 21 points) trimmed the lead to single digits for the first time since the second quarter, sinking back-to-back layups and then stealing the ball and dishing to Daraja Carroll for an easy score to make it 57-50 with 3:11 to play.
Hayles sank a pair of free throws pull the Mustangs within 59-54 with 2:03 to go, but it was as close as they would get.
Led by Oleachea Bowers’ 10 fourth-quarter points, the Bears (17-10) shot 12 of 16 from the free-throw line in the fourth to hold on.
“They made a much higher percentage,” Collier said. “We make ours and it’s a different game, a totally different game. They made theirs when they needed to. You can’t go to the free throw line that often and have such a low percentage. As hard as my girls played, they fought to the end and deserved to make the free throws for themselves.”
The run of play was pretty even for the two teams in the opening half, but the Bears closed the first two quarters strong to separate themselves.
Lexi Thompson (13) drained a pair of 3s to close the first quarter and give Merced a 19-14 lead.
Bears center Dalonna Jones took over the game in the second. The senior finished with 16 points and 24 rebounds, including the last nine points of the second quarter to send Merced into intermission up 38-24.
“The girls came out fast and hard tonight,” Merced coach Robert Pierce said. “It took us a little while to settle down, but once we did, we got into a good offensive rhythm.
“I was pleased with the way we were able to create some wiggle room and, obviously, it proved important at the end.”
The Mustangs went through several similar games this season, facing huge deficits before rallying to win or at least make their opponents sweat a bit.
“We fought back from (several) large deficits,” Collier said. “It really shows the character of the don’t quit, fight-to-the-end mentality. It’s a great characteristic to have. . . .Given what went wrong tonight, I was still very pleased with how the girls fought to the very end. We could have easily packed it in to start the fourth, but we made things interesting.”
Daily Republic sports editor Paul Farmer contributed to this report.