Guy Dossi
The Union Democrat

Lewayne Grant had a white towel draped over his head and sat alone in Columbia’s meeting room following the Claim Jumpers loss to Merced Saturday night. The sophomore scored 61 points in the last two games, but the overall result was the same.

Grant has played like he’s the best in the Central Valley Conference, but his team has not. With each Columbia loss, Grant tries to figure out what he could have done to change the outcome. Yet with only one game remaining before the halfway point of the CVC schedule, Grant knows that each loss is more devastating than the one before.

“It’s conference play, so every loss is a tough loss,” Grant said after the Jumpers 84-70 loss to Merced at Oak Pavilion. “Losing to Porterville set us back a little bit, but we were still in the thick of things. We definitely needed this one tonight, but we fell just a little short.”

In the difficult CVC, winning at home is a necessity for being successful. Before Saturday night, Columbia was 2-0 at home in conference play and 1-2 away from Oak Pavilion.

Each home game the Jumpers do not win, feels like an opportunity wasted.

“It hurts more because you have people coming out in harsh weather to see us play,” said Eugene Harvey. “When you are at home, you are in a comfort zone and you want to take advantage of that. When you are on the road, you don’t have that. These home games are definitely important.”

What hurt Columbia was Merced’s ability to knock down shots from behind the arc. The Blue Devils hit 13 shots from downtown, Columbia made only five.

What upset Columbia head coach Rob Hoyt wasn’t how many 3s Merced hit, rather, the six that came from Jose Gonzalez, who the Jumpers were keying.

“He was our priority, someone who we wanted to give no time and no space and we are not going to let him beat us,” Hoyt said. “In order to do that, the first thing that you have to do is have constant communication on the floor, so we obviously didn’t do a good job with that. He could have had two or three more.”

Columbia started slow in the opening half. Merced was on a 15-2 run, which included three 3-pointers. The Jumpers trailed 23-11 with 11:05 remaining in the first half.

Columbia gained ground with a 9-0 run, during which, the Jumpers got baskets from Grant, Ethan McLaurin, DeAndre Stallings and Harvey, who scored after pulling down one of his six rebounds.

The Jumpers cut the lead to two, but couldn’t take the lead until three minutes to play in the first half. Trailing 30-24, Grant scored five unanswered and Joe Babineaux gave Columbia its first lead of the night with an assist from Grant.

The lead didn’t last, but Columbia only trailed Merced 41-39 at halftime. Grant had 18 points in the first 20 minutes.

“I was just playing within the flow of the game,” Grant said. “My teammates believe in me and they were finding me. I was just doing whatever coach was telling me to do.”

Merced scored first to begin the second half, but Columbia responded with an 11-0 run. Harvey scored four of the points, all of which came in the paint and he put the ball off the glass for baskets. Using the backboard has become a staple of Harvey’s game.

“Growing up, my dad taught me that the backboard is my friend,” Harvey said. “I’m always accustomed to using the backboard. So when I find the right angle and I’m able to use the glass, it’s always a good shot for me.”

Columbia had a 50-43 lead, but even with a seven-point lead, Harvey knew the Blue Devils could to shoot their way back into any game and no lead was good enough.

“You can’t be comfortable when you get a lead against a good team,” Harvey said. “At any given time, they can take that lead right back. No lead is a good lead against a good team, unless there is a double zero on the clock.”

Merced fought back and with 13:29 remaining, took the lead. The lead changed hands over and over, with no team getting more than a seven point lead.

The Jumpers trailed 69-62 with six minutes to play when freshman Elan Spencer made a basket in the paint and Grant followed with an and-1 basket to cut the lead to 69-67. The game remained a two-point difference with 4:21 left to play.

Merced began to make its shots, while Columbia missed. On three consecutive possessions, the Jumpers missed open shots in the paint.

“It’s real hard when you are getting the shots you want, but they just aren’t falling for you,” Harvey said. “Especially at the end of the game when they count the most.”

Grant added, “We preach on finishing at the basket with a two-foot stop and going strong to the hole. Tonight we got to the rim and then faded on some of our layups and that cost us big time.”

Grant finished the night with a game-high 30 points. He was 9 of 14 from the free throw line and hit one 3. He had four rebounds and four assists.

Like Grant, Harvey has played strong games back-to-back. He finished the night with 10 points and Hoyt can see the improvement from his aggressive rebounder.

“He is definitely improving right now and it’s because he’s open to being coached,” Hoyt said. “He’s open to criticism from coaching. Criticism doesn’t have to be negative in regards to coaching. It’s teaching. He’s very open to that, whether he’s on the bench or he’s playing, he wants to be the best teammate. He has put trust in us as a coaching staff and because of that, things are starting to click and become easier for him.”

Stallings added 10 points and six rebounds, Jordan Windley scored five, Spencer, Eli McLaurin and Babineaux scored four and Ethan McLaurin added three points.

Columbia (8-9, 3-3 CVC) looks to snap its two-game skid Wednesday as it hosts West Hills at Oak Pavilion. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.