STOCKTON – The Delta College men's basketball team overcame a rough first half of shooting just in time to defeat Merritt College in the third-place game of the 52nd annual Delta Holliday Tournament on Sunday at Blanchard Gym.
With their 80-69 victory, the Mustangs improved to 8-4 as Delta forward Cameron Pieters recorded 22 points and 15 rebounds en route to being named to the all-tournament team. Teammates Jalen Valverde scored 17 points, Travis August added 12, and Spencer Montiero had 10 points and six rebounds before fouling out.
The Mustangs open Big 8 Conference action Friday at Santa Rosa, and Delta coach Rich Ressa said the tournament provides his players one last challenge before hitting the road.
"It's the first time we've played three times in a row, and it's a good learning experience to overcome that kind of adversity," said Ressa, who is in his 21st season as a coach at Delta. "Guys are tired on that third game, but you've got to be mentally tough and suck it up.
"It really tests our guys' character, and it really tests our guys' fortitude," he added. "I'm really proud of the way they came out in the second half and grinded it out."
The Mustangs struggled from the field throughout the first half, shooting a meager 26 percent and facing a 37-28 halftime deficit. In contrast, the Thunderbirds (5-4), who field eight freshman and one sophomore, shot 53 percent including 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
Pieters was off-target from short range but was told by Ressa to shrug it off.
"It's hard mentally but coach always says, 'Next play,'" Pieters said. "So, every time I'd miss it, I'd have to get over it. If one person's not playing good, another steps up and really pulls through for all of us."
Point guard Jalen Valverde, who played at Elliot Christian, said it wasn't until the second half that Pieters and Montiero were able to take advantage of their mismatch in the key.
"A lot of guys can't handle two posts, so when we go up against teams with no post it's really ugly down there for the other team most of the time," Valverde said. "They're everything to this team."
Trailing 40-32 early in the second half, the Mustangs went on a 26-8 run fueled by a pair of 3-pointers from August, five points from freshman Jimmy Betz and seven points from Pieters. Delta extended that 58-48 lead with 7 minutes, 28 seconds remaining into a 15-point advantage in the closing minutes of the game.
Merritt College coach Derrick Jones said his team came unraveled in the second half and simply couldn't recover.
"It was self-inflicted," Jones said. "We missed some points on the fast-break and if you don't put the ball in the basket this game is very difficult."
Delta shot 65 percent from the field in the second half and finished at 43 percent overall, including 6-for-16 from 3-point range.