The Merritt College Thunderbirds have taken their fans on quite a ride.
Four teams remain in the state men's basketball playoffs, and Merritt, which finished third in the Bay Valley Conference and was seeded No. 15 in the Northern Regional playoffs, is still playing.
Merritt (18-12) will face favored Mt. San Antonio College-Walnut (27-3) at 4 p.m. Friday in the state semifinals at Cosumnes River in Sacramento, with the winner advancing to Saturday's championship game at 1 p.m.
In Friday's other semifinal, City College of San Francisco (31-0), which has crushed three straight playoff opponents by an average of 36 points, will play Chaffey-Rancho Cucamonga (26-6) at 7 p.m.
The Thunderbirds are the lowest seed from the north ever to advance to the state's final four. The 1958 Merritt team was the state runner-up.
"The key element for us is we just stayed determined throughout all the adversity we have faced," said Merritt forward Eric Nelson, an El Cerrito High graduate averaging 11.2 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game. "We showed a lot of heart and have good chemistry together. I feel like we're really underrated. Internally, we feel like we're the favorite to win the entire thing."
The Thunderbirds' postseason thrill ride began with a 63-62 win over No. 18 American River in an out-bracket game. Merritt then upset defending state champion and No. 2 seed Fresno City 100-83 and No. 7 Ohlone 79-76, both on the road. The
Undaunted by the drama off the court, Merritt upended No. 14 Delta in Stockton 79-75 in the fourth round to earn a trip to the state's final four. Sophomore point guard Joshua Amey (Berkeley) agrees that it's tougher winning on the road, but it's nothing the Thunderbirds can't handle.
"It only makes us focus more and come together as a team more, because we know as a team everybody else is pulling against us," said Amey, a team captain.
Mt. San Antonio, which was the No. 3 seed in the Southern regional, is paced by Corey Allen (21.1 ppg) and Garrett Nevels (19.8 ppg).
EX-DVC STAR INDUCTED: Former Diablo Valley College men's basketball star Jason Williams will be inducted into the state Men's Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Friday in Sacramento.
Williams led the Vikings to consecutive conference titles and a two-year record of 55-14 from 1995 to 1997. He was a two-time All-Bay Valley Conference selection, and in 1997 was named the Northern California Player of the Year. He also played two years at Pacific, and professionally in Asia and Europe for five years.
ART OF TRACK AND FIELD: The Academy of Art of San Francisco women's track and field team won the team title at the NCAA Division II Indoor championships in Birmingham, Ala., on March 9. The Urban Knights had four of the eight finalists in the women's 60-meters hurdles, as Vashti Thomas finished second, Briana Stewart (Logan) third, Julian Purvis (St. Elizabeth) fifth and Dinesha Bean seventh. Thomas was first in the long jump and 200 meters and fourth in the triple jump. Jenny Bergren (Miramonte) was third in the mile with a school-record time of 4 minutes, 50.03 seconds. Stewart also helped the 1,600 relay team take third.
SWEEPING SENSATION: The Cal State East Bay baseball team (17-7, 10-6 California Collegiate Athletic Association) earned its first sweep of a conference opponent since 2010 by taking four games against Cal State San Bernardino last week. Pioneers junior Sean Becker was named the CCAA Baseball Pitcher of the Week for the second time this season. The Pioneers host Chico State in a huge four-game series beginning Friday at 3 p.m.