With a postseason berth on the line, Manteca coach Jason Hitt isn’t interested in style points.
That was the message to his Buffaloes after they held on for a 62-59 win at Sierra on Wednesday.
Manteca (5-4 Valley Oak League, 12-13 overall) lived at the free-throw line in the second half, making 20 of 28 foul shots while getting held to just four field goals. The Buffs tried to go out with something flashy as they twice rushed the ball up-court in transition during the final minute and came up empty-handed on both occasions, including a botched dunk attempt.
“I think both teams got real physical and obviously the fouls started adding up, so it came down to making free throws,” Hitt said. “Instead of taking fouls and shooting free throws we decided to get fancy at the end and that’s our boys’ IQ.
“We just have to keep getting smarter every game and hopefully they can learn from that because these upcoming games with Kimball and East Union can be the same situation.”
Sierra (4-6, 13-11) trailed by as much as 11 in the first half but was never out of it thanks to Kendrick Currey’s 26-point masterpiece. The Timberwolves took their final lead with 5:02 remaining before succumbing to a 7-0 run.
They continued to battle until the end, getting a buzzer-beating put-back from Jesse Ortiz-Martinez for the final points. Spencer Briscoe’s two free throws with 33.4 seconds left gave Manteca breathing room for the much-needed win.
“Sierra just kept cutting and cutting (the deficit) and they didn’t stop playing,” Hitt said. “Currey had an unbelievable game, and a lot of their role players played really well, too. I tip my hat off to them.”
Jordan Burciaga racked up 17 points and 11 rebounds for Manteca, while Nick Bell added 15 points and 12 boards. The two post players struggled to get short-range shots to drop but were rewarded for their activity in the paint, combining to sink 13 of 24 free throws.
The Buffs finished 24 of 37 overall from the stripe, while Sierra made 12 of 22. Manteca’s Bobby Martin contributed 10 points, and Zach Curry fired 14 points before fouling out.
“They were a little more energetic to start the game, more physical,” Sierra coach Eddie Morales said of Manteca. “Our guys finally woke up and we started playing some defense. Once we got that settled I thought we were fine and we’d take over down the stretch.”
Currey got the Timberwolves going in the third quarter when he scored 10 of their 16 points. His steal and breakaway slam with 4:49 to go closed them in 34-33, and he later made a tough runner in traffic to give Sierra its first lead since early in the first quarter at 37-36.
The momentum was short-lived.
“We get a big dunk in the second half and get some energy, and then we do some dumb stuff like get a technical (foul),” Morales said. “That’s kind of the story of what we do this year — we get a lead but we can’t put it away.”
Sierra nearly shut the Buffaloes out from the field in the quarter, but Jacob De Jesus — a defensive sparkplug and pass-first point guard off the bench — spoiled that with a NBA-range 3-ball from the left wing at the buzzer. That tied it 42-42 going into the fourth.
“That was really big for momentum, especially for him,” Hitt said. “(De Jesus) has been there sporadically for us but he’s working his backside off trying to get back into basketball shape from football. He’s still feeling stuff out, but he does a great job defensively for us.”
Manteca is now alone in third place in the VOL, and only three get automatic spots to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. Both teams have a tough stretch to close the regular season with red-hot reigning champion Weston Ranch still left on their schedules.
“I think we’re fine, we just have to hold our composure,” Morales said. “I told our guys to start treating this like it’s the playoffs now, so it’s time to really focus. Hopefully we can be resilient. We have at least two games left, so we’ll keep grinding and play them like championship games.”