Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

If there was any doubt about Columbia College's traditionally strong defense against Merced after an average first half, that was put to rest in the final 20 minutes.

The Claim Jumpers men's basketball team shattered a nine-point halftime deficit, limited the Blue Devils to a school-record 12 points in the second period and won 61-46 in commanding fashionon Wednesdayat Oak Pavilion.

"We all knew that the first half was a little bit sluggish," said Columbia forward Tige Wingo. "The second half, everyone made a little pact with themselves to play a little bit harder. A little bit better. It's never a surprise when the defense works. It's a great defense and we all buy into it. When you buy into it like we did in the second half, it works."

Columbia came ready to play right from the opening tip-off. Wingo scored the team's first six points, carving Merced's man defense on a drive to the baseline, a jumper and a layup.

Shooting guard Mike Williams added two baskets, and in just over 3 minutes, the Claim Jumpers led 10-0.

"You want to get the momentum going on your side right when the game starts, so you can kind of pick up some speed," Wingo said. "We started out really good."

Merced head coach Bill Russell called a timeout immediately and slashed his defensive game plan. He switched his scheme from man to zone.

And it was effective.

"Not a whole lot of people play zone against us," Wingo said. "But I still think we got the shots that we wanted, they just weren't falling."

Merced guard Jermaine Crowder drilled a trey and the rally soon began.

The Blue Devils went on a 34-15 run to close out the first half with a 34-25 advantage. Ronald Charles exploited the Claim Jumpers' weakness in the paint and registered 10 points during that stretch. Aaron Deatherage added 10.

"It was really on our defensive end," Wingo said. "We gave up some wide open 3s and they knocked them down. We needed to do a better job of that."

But in the second half, where Columbia has struggled to keep pace with opposing teams this season, the Claim Jumpers clamped down on defense and shut down the Blue Devils.

Forward Rosendo AmayaWood drained a hook shot and Columbia went on a powerful 14-6 run and re-grabbed the lead on a Wingo 15-foot jumper at the8:39mark. Before Wingo's basket, forward Ian Merwinski made a statement with a powerful tip-dunk that had the crowd in a frenzy.

"He's athletic," Wingo said. "He can jump. He has the longest arms I ever seen. He does a good job rebounding. It's a big help to have that type of person that we can rely on and get those hard-to-reach rebounds. He really came through for us tonight."

From there, the rout was on.

Danny Radford nailed a shot from beyond the arc, and Rafe King grabbed a rebound and went coast-to-coast for an easy two points.

"Our defense is really good," Radford said. "It makes the other teams take really bad shots, and we started making shots."

King sank back-to-back 3s and in under 5 minutes, the Claim Jumpers lead expanded to 52-40.

"It's second nature to me just to grab the ball, shoot it and it goes in," King said. "I don't have to think twice about it."

With constant defensive pressure, Merced shot just 12 percent from the field in the second period. The Blue Devils made only 3 of 24 attempts and were 2 of 16 from 3-point land. Charles, who dropped 10 points in the first half, was held in check and managed just a two-point bucket. Deatherage went scoreless.

"The team knew we needed to pick up the energy," Wingo said. "The second half was a lot different. We needed more energy. I think everyone was just upset that we were losing. Competition brings out a little more energy in everyone. We didn't want to lose, and second half, we came out a little bit better. We moved our feet better. We made our coverages better. Got a hand up. They didn't have that many open shots. Everything was contested."

King scored 15 points in the second stanza and finished with a team-high 19 for Columbia. Wingo tallied 14 points and Radford added 12 with two 3-point baskets. Williams notched nine points and AmayaWood chipped in three. Both Marcus Junior and Merwinski had two points.

Crowder led Merced with 15 points and Charles recorded 12.

Radford and Jordan Gomez, the Claim Jumpers only sophomores, were recognized before the game for their outstanding two years on the floor. Radford made a memorable dunk with9:31left on the game clock in the first half to cap off his home career.

"I think Danny was more happy than sad," Wingo said. "He showed everyone how good he is and put on a good show for the fans. I think everyone will remember how great he was for this program, and how great Jordan did for this program."

Columbia (12-13, 5-5 Central Valley Conference) will try to make it three wins in a row when it plays at the Porterville Pirateson Saturday at 3 p.m.

The Claim Jumpers knocked off the Pirates (8-15, 2-7 CVC) 73-71 earlier this season in January at home.