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Gardner fires 15 of 35 in pivotal 3rd
Manteca defender LaRon Bennett tries to draw the charge on Weston Ranch’s Derrick Sykes. - photo by HIME ROMERO
So how does Manteca High sophomore Kiwi Gardner follow up Friday’s career-best 36-point performance against Sierra?

With an “off” night.

Gardner was off the mark on several wide-open jumpers and 3-pointers he sinks with regularity, so he settled for a measly 35 points, eight assists, five steals and four rebounds in Manteca’s 80-57 win over visiting Weston Ranch Wednesday in what was a battle between the Valley Oak League’s remaining undefeated teams.

Gardner did eventually find his groove, sparking Manteca’s big third-quarter rally by scoring 15 of his 35 with the Buffaloes’ three main post players (Dominique Barnes, Jorge Castro and Nick Scheible) in foul trouble.

LaRon Bennett’s coast-to-coast layup off his own steal gave the Buffaloes their first double-digit lead of the night, 53-43, during the pivotal third frame, and Gardner completed the 10-0 run by scoring the next two buckets.

The score was tied at 34-all at halftime.

“Kiwi took over,” Weston Ranch coach Ryan Bono said. “Our game plan worked well in the first half, but we just couldn’t contain him — that was the bottom line.

“He did everything that he wanted to do, and we did not step up and stop him.”

The anticipated showdown between the league’s reigning champion, Weston Ranch (4-1, 9-8 overall), and Manteca (5-0, 16-2), which looks to capture its first league title in 20 years, started with a whimper.

Weston Ranch’s Ronnie Collins rattled in a jumper from the free-throw line to break the scoreless tie 2 minutes, 50 seconds into the contest, ending a brutal stretch of point-blank misses and in-and-out jumpers.

Then off they went, as both teams traded baskets for the remainder of the half at an expected high-tempo pace.

“I was glad it was tied (at halftime) with how badly we took care of the ball,” Manteca coach Dave Asuncion said. “We knew it was going to be a battle with Weston Ranch being 4-0 and defending league champs.

“They feel like they’re disrespected, and that’s dangerous when you play a team that feels disrespected.”

Manteca’s posts managed to produce despite the foul trouble, with Scheible scoring 13 points and hauling in seven rebounds. Barnes contributed 10 points and six boards. Castro finished with seven and 11.

Nate Moises paced the Cougars with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Derrick Sykes, who missed last Friday’s East Union game with a sore groin, pumped in 13 points, six rebounds and five assists.

Weston Ranch concludes its most important two-game stretch of the regular season so far with Sierra (4-1, 12-5) at home Friday. The Buffaloes will next play host East Union (1-4, 2-15).

“This is our big week, so hopefully we can regroup in practice and be ready for Sierra,” Bono said.