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Back from suspension, Gardner letting game do the talking

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Back from suspension, Gardner letting game do the talking

Kiwi Gardner drives past Sierra's Allan Sampayan during Manteca's 64-48 wino ver the host Timberwolves.

HIME ROMERO/The Buulletin

POSTED January 21, 2010 2:45 a.m.
His grand return to the hardwood was anything but.

Not to begin with, anyway.

Kiwi Gardner didn’t even get to start in Manteca High’s anticipated grudge match at rival Sierra Wednesday when two of the Valley Oak League’s three first-place teams clashed.

The Buffaloes’ ball-handling wiz and big-shot maker checked in at the scorer’s table with 4 minutes, 19 seconds to go in the first quarter and Manteca ahead, 4-3.

“You’re in trouble!” the Manteca faithful chanted.

But it was Gardner who had trouble getting into a groove after having not played since Dec. 30 and missing the team’s first five conference contests.

His usually larger-than-life presence and swagger weren’t there.

Not to begin with, anyway.

Gardner’s first shot, a 3-pointer from the right wing, clanked off the front iron.

He turned it over on two of Manteca’s next three possessions, and then the over-anxious 5-foot-9 junior point guard missed an uncontested dunk attempt after forcing a steal with 1:31 remaining in the first.

To top it off, he missed two of his first four free throws of the game, and the Buffaloes went into the second quarter uncomfortably ahead, 8-7.

“I was a little nervous coming into the game,” Gardner said following the Buffaloes’ 64-48 victory. “I hadn’t played a game in like three weeks.”

It was exactly three weeks from Wednesday since Gardner last played, and 23 days since the incident responsible for him missing all that time.

Gardner was ejected from a non-league game — won by Inglewood, 68-57 — on Dec. 28 in the second round of the Modesto Christian Holiday Hoops Classic.

The ejection and the hoopla that followed stem from the brief contact made between the official and Gardner, who expressed frustration to the referee for the mounting fouls called against his team late in the contest.

(I couldn’t tell if there was contact from where I was standing, but if there was it was hardly noticeable and most certainly harmless. Just my two pennies).

Gardner served a one-game suspension for the ejection a day later when Manteca got hammered 82-42 by powerhouse Clovis East and was benched by head coach Dave Asuncion for the first quarter of the Dec. 30 game against Turlock, which won, 82-57.

Gardner was forced to miss the first week of VOL play while the Sac-Joaquin Section reviewed the incident with the ref.

Had it been proven that Gardner intended to cause harm to the official, which clearly was not the case, he could have forfeited the rest of his eligibility to participate in California Interscholastic Federation sports.

The section sanctioned a four-game suspension, and Gardner served a fifth imposed by the team.

Gardner didn’t comment much on the suspensions, saying he’s ready to move on.

“It’s been what it is,” he said. “I haven’t played, I’ve been waiting to play and I played today — that’s it. I’m just happy to be back, and I’m hoping I don’t have to (go through it) again.”

Without Gardner, the Buffaloes proved that they could still contend for the VOL title, losing only to Weston Ranch — the third of the league’s first-place triumvirate going into Wednesday’s games — in their opening five-game stretch of league.

With Gardner back in the fold Wednesday, the Buffaloes proved that they should repeat as conference champions.

The team is plenty talented enough to compete without its star, but the team shines with it.

While Gardner’s anticipated return was inauspicious at the start, he and the rest of the Buffaloes picked up their play in the second quarter.

After missing his first two shots from the field, Gardner converted his next six in succession — five of them 3-pointers including a breath-taking buzzer-beater that stretched Manteca’s lead to 34-19 at halftime.

Gardner ended up with 31 points (9 for 15 from the field, six for eight from long range, seven for 11 from the free-throw line), three rebounds, five assists, seven steals and five turnovers.

His final assist was the grand finale of his grand return, as 6-4 forward Gerry Cooper threw down an emphatic two-handed slam off Gardner’s alley-oop feed with 47 seconds remaining.

“(Having Gardner back) makes working the offense a lot easier, and it takes the pressure off of everybody else,” said Cooper, who had two dunks to highlight his 10-point, six-rebound effort. “When you have Kiwi in the game, you know he’s going to score, so I just do what I can do to help the team. When I score, I’m getting my points off of him.”

Gardner was whistled for one foul Wednesday. The violation was of the ticky-tack variety after moving in on a Sierra ball handler for a steal late in the third quarter, but he simply turned and clapped in response.

The swagger and playful brashness missing in the first quarter returned in the second half. He will continue to play to the crowd and leave spectators in awe with his unusual gifts.

But there was a lesson learned: Stay away from the refs.

“I mean, there’s really nothing to say,” Gardner said. “Actions speak louder than words.”
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