East Union High bowed out of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs Thursday with a tough 54-51 second-round loss to Merced at the Dalben Center.
"Both teams knew each other very well," said Lancers coach Jim Agostini, whose team came away victorious in the two previous meetings.
He added: "What we had was two competitive teams going at one another."
Since then, the No. 5-seeded Bears (26-3) put together a 19-game winning streak — make that 20 — and were the champions of Central California Conference by going unbeaten in league play.
Against No. 4 East Union (25-5), Merced played aggressively by taking it strongly to the hoop and crashing the boards on offensive end to help set up the occasional second-chance points.
"Rebounding was the difference of the game — we were not as sharp," Agostini said. "They had more possessions."
The Bears had a 32-21 edge on the boards, with a dozen of those coming on the offensive glass.
For that reason, the Lancers got off to a slow start, falling behind 11-2. It wasn't until midway through the first half that East Union finally got untracked.
Behind the scoring efforts of Taylor Snear and Lani Tu'uaga, both freshmen, along with Ala Tu'uaga and Kyshanti King, the Lancers orchestrated a 14-2 run, going from 14-8 deficit to a 24-16 lead.
"By the second quarter, we did a better job of taking care of the basketball," Agostini said.
East Union maintained that momentum through the early portions of third quarter, in turn, building up 39-30 advantage thanks to Snaer's mid-range jumper followed by Lani Tu'uaga's layup and Ala Tu'uaga's two free throws.
The Lancers held a 45-38 edge prior to Merced's big fourth-quarter run.
Khya Martin, the Bears' standout senior, led that final 16-6 charge by scoring six of her team-high 13 points — she also had 13 rebounds, three blocks and a steal -- followed by Sierra Smith's steal at halfcourt for a quick layup.
Anaya Seals added three crucial baskets including a floater and the final bucket with 31.8 seconds left to all but dash East Union's hopes.
"Merced played very well. I congratulate them as they move on in the playoffs," said Agostini, who returns next season with most of his team intact. Ashley Martin and Sabrina Ochoa were the only seniors on this Valley Oak League championship team.
Ala Tu'uga led the Lancers in this finale with a game-high 17 points, six boards, three steals and a block.
Lani Tu'uga chipped in with 14 points, four rebounds and two steals while Snaer finished with 12 points, five rebounds and a steal.
The Bears, who got balanced scoring from Kaitlynn Perez (11), Amari Stamps (9), Seals (8) and Smith (8), will face top-seeded Placer in Auburn.