A great start gave way to a somewhat clunky finish, but the Sonora High boys' basketball team is back at .500 after a 51-40 victory over Golden Valley of Merced on Tuesday night at Bud Castle Gym.

The Wildcats (5-5) came out like gangbusters behind the shooting of senior guard Aaron Jolley and raced to a 10-0 lead, which they expanded to 21-5 by the end of the first quarter and 25-5 early in the second.

Jolley opened the game with two 3-pointers, hit two more later in the first quarter and scored 15 of Sonora's first 17 points. He didn't score again, but he had put Golden Valley (3-7) in a hole from which the Cougars could not escape.

Senior center Tom McDonnell took over in the second quarter and scored eight of his game-high 19 points. But the turnover problems that have plagued the Wildcats in an uneven preseason reared up again and Golden Valley closed the gap to 25-16 with an 11-0 run before Sonora regrouped and led 32-18 at halftime.

"That was the best first quarter we've had in a long time," Sonora coach Rick Francis said after the game. "But then we got into that mode of 'it's time to turn the ball over.' Championship teams just can't afford to turn the ball over like that."

Indeed, Sonora can forget about defending its title unless the Wildcats can find a way to take care of the ball against Valley Oak League teams especially East Union and Oakdale that are going to be a lot better, and a lot more physical, than Golden Valley. VOL play begins Jan. 8 at Manteca, and Sonora plays Oakdale and East Union back-to-back on Jan. 24 and 29, and again on Feb. 19 and 21 to end the regular season.

McDonnell opened the second half with three straight buckets and Sonora ran its lead back up to 21 points, 44-23. With about six minutes remaining, however, the turnovers began coming in bunches again and Sonora's lead shrank to nine points, 46-37, with 1:53 remaining.