It took three quarters for Kiwi Gardner to take over.
The Manteca High boys basketball team’s star guard fired in 18 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and produced six rebounds, four assists and seven steals in the Buffaloes’ 81-63 victory over Placer Wednesday.
Placer (16-12) did an admirable job of denying Gardner his touches over the first three quarters of play, but the rest of the seventh-seeded Buffaloes made No. 10 Placer pay as five players scored in double figures.
Manteca (23-5) next faces No. 2 Vista del Lago, a 50-35 victor over Sonora, in Folsom in the quarterfinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs Friday.
“With them focusing their defense on Kiwi, that just opens things up for other players,” said sophomore guard Taylor Hasal. “It’s good to see everybody (get involved). We came out and played hard.”
Hasal split point guard duties with senior Ernie Pimentel and finished with 14 points and five assists.
E.J. Godfrey (12 points, four blocks), Gerry Cooper (10 points, seven rebounds, six blocks) and reserve C.J. Rivas (10 points, five rebounds) were formidable in the post on both ends.
Pimentel scored all seven of his points in the first half and was well below his season scoring average of 15.1.
“Manteca is a good team and Gardner is an excellent player,” Placer coach Mark Lee said. “We did a nice job on Pimentel, but 45 (Godfrey) hurt us tonight and our inability to finish was our downfall.”
Josh Klem led Placer with 22 points and 14 rebounds and torched Manteca inside for 15 of his points in the first half. Josh Turney buried four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points, and Darren Centi added 11 points and five assists.
But in the second half the shots stopped falling during pivotal moments for the Hillmen, who led 27-21 after the first quarter and battled Manteca to a 35-all tie by halftime.
Manteca buckled down on the defensive end during the middle two periods, forcing 10 of Placer’s 22 turnovers in the second while keeping the opposition scoreless for a 5-minute, 5-second stretch.
“We just became very tentative on offense and were scared to pass the ball,” Lee said. “That hurt us. We knew coming in that we’d have to play perfect basketball to be able to contend.
“But our problem was on the offensive end, we didn’t score. We did a decent job on defense, but we had too many point-blank misses.
The Buffaloes pulled away in the third, leading 54-45 by quarter’s end, but once they pushed the pace in the fourth the game was theirs.
They went on a 7-0 run, highlighted by Cooper’s breakaway dunk with 5:31 to go, to make it 66-52.Hasal and Gardner each hit a 3-pointer during another 7-0 spurt late, and the Buffaloes were in full control, 75-57 with 2:28 remaining.
“When we play like this we’re a good team,” Manteca coach Dave Asuncion said. “Kiwi is going to be able to dictate things, but he was able to get his teammates involved. We had guys step up offensively and defensively.”