After trailing the Mercedes Tigers by eight points at the break, the Pace Vikings spent the entire second half slowly chipping away but never quite get over the hump.
That is, until the 2.7-second mark of the fourth quarter of a tie game.
Pace’s Abraham Rincon went to the free-throw line after being fouled on a rebound sequence. He missed the first shot but sank the second to secure a 61-60 District 32-5A win over the Tigers on Friday night at Pace.
“The fourth quarter was a little frustrating because we couldn’t put the ball in the basket, but we had trust in our teammates,” Rincon said. “We eventually pulled through with our free throws. After I missed the first free throw, I knew I couldn’t let my teammates down. I already had a practice shot with the first, so I had to hit the second.”
The Vikings, who usually have the green light to shoot, turned in a 34-percent showing from the floor, going 3 for 18 from beyond the arc and 0 for 10 during the second half.
Still, Pace (3-0 in district) held Mercedes (1-2 in district) without a field goal for the final 5:12 to stay in striking distance.
“We knew it was going to be tough all game and it could go either way,” Vikings coach Jose Luis Ramirez said. “We had to make one stop at a time and hope for the best on offense. In the end it was about who made the last play, and fortunately we did. We know we can play with good teams as long as we keep our cool. (Former Harlingen High coach) Greg Yates told me once that cool heads win hot games, and we try to preach that as much as possible.”
Cristian Guajardo led the Vikings with a team-high 17 points, Rincon finished with seven and Esquiel Hernandez netted 12.
Mercedes unraveled down the stretch, missing five of its 12 free throws during the final six minutes and making just three fourth-quarter field goals, a far cry from seven 3-point shots and 36 points in the first half.
The Tigers still had two seconds left to get in a quick inbound and get a shot off after Rincon’s free throw, but the inbound pass went high and bounced off the rafters, a symbolic representation of the final minutes.
“(Pace) flipped the momentum on us,” Mercedes coach Rick Trevino said. “We had an opportunity, then another and another and another. We probably had five or six to finish the game late, but we blew them all away. We had a bad shot when we were up, and a foul 80-feet away, missed free throws … You name it, we did it.”
Mercedes came out on fire, hitting three treys during the first quarter to jump out to a 17-8 lead in the late first quarter.
Pace went on a 13-3 run from there and took its only lead of the game aside from the final on a Guajardo layup to make it 21-20, but a Mercedes 3 on the other end 20 seconds later made it short-lived.
Tigers guard Brandon Lozoya scored 16 first-half points, including 11 second-quarter points, highlighted by a buzzer-beating 3 to go into the half leading the Vikings 36-28.
Lozoya cooled off during the second half, scoring just eight points and finishing with a game-high 24, just ahead of teammate Jordan Ovalle, who posted 18.
“Mercedes hit seven 3s in the first half. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that that is their strength right now,” Ramirez said. “We were giving it up, but also switched to man defense and made sure we were able to stay close and get a better look. It worked for us this time.”
Pace opened the third quarter with a Rincon bucket that sparked a 10-2 run that featured a pair of buckets from Hernandez to tie the game at 38.
Lozoya stopped the bleeding with a triple to make it 41-38 and gave Mercedes the small cushion it struggled to keep in the fourth as Pace tied the game three different times during the final five minutes. The last time was on a pair of Guajardo freebies with 14.7 seconds left, setting up the final sequence.