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Manteca is frontrunner of title race with OT win
Manteca’s Dominique Barnes pulls down the rebound and goes up strong from the middle of the Sierra defense. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Manteca sophomore Kiwi Gardner was already red hot, but he passed up a wide-open 3-pointer to let an ice-cold teammate attempt the biggest shot of the game.

LaRon Bennett, who couldn’t hit a perimeter shot all night, buried the three from the right corner for his only points with 1 minute, 31 seconds left in overtime to give Manteca the lead for good, as the Buffaloes squeaked out a 73-69 victory over visiting intracity foe Sierra Friday.

“I don’t care if LaRon hadn’t hit a shot all month, I’ll still give him the ball because I have faith in my teammates,” said Gardner, who finished with 33 points, six steals, five assists and four rebounds. “I know what he’s capable of, and I knew he was going to make the shot.

“One assist, three points, man.”

That one assist and those three points helped Manteca (9-1, 20-3 overall) capture sole possession of first place in the Valley Oak League with four regular-season games remaining, while Sierra (8-2, 16-6) falls into a second-place tie with Weston Ranch.

 “That’s huge for us, but obviously we’re not done,” Manteca coach Dave Asuncion said. “We don’t want to share this (title) with anybody and we have ‘The Ranch’ next week.

“I’m going to enjoy this first before I start thinking about that.”

Gardner scored 12 of his points in the fourth quarter and overtime, drilling three 3-pointers while hitting the first of two free throws with 1.8 seconds to go in the extra period to seal the win.

Senior forward Nick Scheible posted 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks for Manteca. Dominique Barnes added nine points and seven boards.

While Bennett’s clutch three was key, he also had the daunting task of guarding the league’s most electrifying scorer in Sierra guard Christian Williams.

Williams was held to just 11 points at the two-minute mark of the third quarter, but that was his cue to take over with the Timberwolves down 42-35 — the game’s largest margin.

Williams scored all of his team’s points in a 17-4 run that propelled Sierra to a 52-46 lead with 5:17 remaining in regulation. Manteca countered with eight unanswered points, six coming from Gardner’s two 3-pointers.

Williams finished with 34 points to lead all scorers and converted a three-point play with 16.9 seconds left in the fourth to force overtime.

Trevor Nogueira added 13 points, and David Keating chipped in 11.

“I knew (Williams) was going to get his points, but I had to make him work for them,” said Bennett, who also had two blocks and a steal. “I did the best I could to be that defensive sparkplug for our team.”
The magic number is 3 for the Buffaloes, who are shooting for the program’s first VOL championship since 1989.

Manteca figures to have the tougher schedule compared to Sierra’s down the stretch, with Ceres and Weston Ranch both on the road next week, and Sonora at home and East Union across town to close it out. Manteca’s lone league loss came against Sonora.

Sierra wraps up the season with Oakdale, East Union, Central Valley and Weston Ranch, and all but the Central Valley game are at home.

“All we can do in these last four games is get on a roll,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said. “We’re going to make statements these last four games, and we’re going to take it out on Oakdale Wednesday night. Manteca could stumble, so we want to take care of our part.

“By no means is this going to be our signature game. We have a lot of basketball left to play. We’re going to play top-notch Sierra High basketball these next four games.”