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Buffs clamp down Kimball; face No. 1 Vanden in semis
Kimball-Manteca boys basketball
Manteca point guard Ramesh Kabiri takes aim at the basket with the lefty layup against Kimball’s Chinedu Nwakwo (20) and Travis Marieiro (23). - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

Trey Moreland pushed Manteca ahead for good with a 3-pointer, and the No. 4 Buffaloes held visiting Kimball scoreless for the final 3 minutes, 57 seconds of a satisfying 53-44 win that sends them to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals and NorCal tournament.

This was a rubber match between the Valley Oak League rivals, who split their two regular-season contests by a total margin of five points. Manteca (20-10), which may have played its final varsity basketball game at Winter Gym, travels to Fairfield on Wednesday to meet top-seeded Vanden (17-12), which held off No. 8 Center, 73-64.

“This was definitely a great matchup, a hard-fought matchup,” Manteca coach Jason Hitt said. “We wanted to keep their two best players under their (scoring) averages and we were able to do that. I thought our defensive effort was outstanding, and we were really good on rebounding.”

No. 5 Kimball (20-9) was held to seven points in the final period, and Manteca outrebounded the Jaguars from Tracy, 38-28. Justice Chase paced the balanced Buffs with 15 points and six rebounds. Point guard Ramesh Kabiri added 10 points, five rebounds and four assists, while 6-foot-8 center Mehtaj Mehrok racked up eight points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Noah Lyons contributed nine points off the bench.

Isaiah Baptista tallied 12 points and four steals for Kimball. Kobe Harris and Benito Ruiz, two of the Jaguars’ top scorers this season, were limited to six and five points, respectively. Reserve forward Chinedu Nwankwo chiped in six points, seven rebounds and four steals.

“We pride ourselves on defense, that’s our biggest thing this year,” Mehrok said. “We think we’re the best defensive team in the area. Those rebounds were huge, and we were all rebounding.”

Mehrok also made two of the Buffaloes’ four 3-pointers, taking advantage of open looks with Chase drawing much of the attention inside.

Moreland (five points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals) knocked down the big 3-pointer that ignited Manteca’s closing 9-0 run. He and Kabiri combined to hit four straight free throws in the final 30 seconds to lock up the victory. It was Kabiri who found Moreland open on the wing for the 3. Moreland missed from long range in the Buffaloes’ previous possession.

“I missed the first one, and I knew that when I got it back I would hit it,” he said. “I was confident in that shot. When that ball got swung around to me it was late in the shot clock, so I had to get that.”

Hitt was pleased with how his team performed in crunch time after giving up a double-digit lead. Leading 23-21 at halftime, the Buffaloes scored nine unanswered points at one point in the third quarter to widen the gap to 36-25.

Kimball responded with an 8-0 run sparked by its full-court press that forced turnovers on three straight possessions. In the fourth, Harris buried an elbow jumper to tie it at 44-44 with 3:58 remaining. The shots stopped falling for the Jaguars the rest of the way.

“I think we’re getting better with under 2 minutes left,” Hitt said. “That’s always been our struggle all season, but now that we’re getting into these pressure moments we’re knocking down our free throws, we’re not panicking and we’re rebounding the ball.”