By JAMES BURNS
Nathan McGrath burned a first-half timeout not to draw up a play or design a defense. He simply wanted his Lathrop boys basketball team to slow down.
The first-year head coach had an entirely different message in the second half, urging the explosive Spartans to turn up the speed.
“Attack,” McGrath said during a third-quarter huddle. “Keep attacking.”
T.J. Conley took advantage of the green light, scoring eight points in a wild fourth quarter, including the game-winning layup with 5.8 seconds remaining.
Manteca dribbled the ball out of bounds on its final possession, sealing Lathrop’s 46-44 victory on Tuesday.
Conley led three players in double figures with 14 points, shaking off an ankle injury that forced him to the bench for a three-minute stretch in the second half.
“Thank God it went in,” Conley said with a mile-wide smile. “I was going to be in trouble if it didn’t. I couldn’t get my shot going (early on), but I found it towards the end thanks to our point guard (Nilo Yuson).”
Conley also had four rebounds and helped neutralize Manteca forward Michael Hatfield in the third quarter as Lathrop climbed out of a three-point hole at halftime.
Hatfield finished with 14 points and eight rebounds to lead the Buffaloes, but was held scoreless in the third as Lathrop surged to a 34-31 lead.
“That Hatfield, he’s a monster inside, but T.J. had a great game,” McGrath said. “Being undersized in height and weight, he really held his own.”
A picture of nerves and discontent throughout the game, McGrath was all smiles leaving the locker room afterwards.
His team had overcome a slow start and nine fourth-quarter turnovers to defeat arguably one of the Valley Oak League’s most experienced and deepest teams on opening night.
Nicholaus Obazuaye had 11 points and eight rebounds and Isaiah Ellis provided a spark early, finishing with 10 points and seven rebounds for Lathrop (1-0 VOL, 8-5).
Manteca (0-1) falls to 8-6 after leading by as many as seven in the first half.
“That’s how league games are going to be played this year – nice and tight,” said Manteca coach Dave Asuncion, whose team committed seven of its 17 turnovers in the third period. “You have to execute down the stretch to win those.”
Austin Haro had 14 points for the Buffaloes, who very nearly escaped this league opener with a home victory.
The Spartans took their biggest lead on back-to-back jumpers from the elbow by Conley, 40-34, forcing Manteca to burn a full timeout with 5:25 remaining.
The Buffaloes responded with an 8-2 run to tie the game at 42-all. The tying points came courtesy of a controversial and-one call by the referees, who awarded T.J. Muhar a field goal and foul shot without actually seeing the shot sail through the rim.
Instead, the referees conferred with the scorer’s table for a ruling, and after a minute delay, stood by their call.
Muhar knocked down the free throw, setting up a wild final minute.
Conley knocked down another jumper from the elbow to make it 44-42 with 48 seconds left.
Hatfield answered on the other end with a turnaround jumper over Conley’s outstretched arms with 17 seconds remaining.
Lathrop point guard Nilo Yuson never flinched. As he had done throughout the second half, Yuson (four points, six assists) drove the lane, drawing the Manteca defense.
Just when it looked like he might finish at the rim, Yuson slipped the ball to Conley. He double-clutched the layup, hoping to draw contact.
His shot ticked off the rim and in as Lathrop won in familiar fashion on the VOL’s opening night. Kimball’s victory over East Union was also decided in the final seconds.
“We’re a senior-heavy team, which it showed in the fourth quarter,” McGrath said. “We had some calls that didn’t go our way. It was nice to see the Nilos of the world and T.J. keep their composure and come up clutch.”
The Spartans host Sonora on Thursday, while Manteca hosts defending co-champion Weston Ranch.
Manteca 55, Lathrop 46
Tyler Graves and Anand Hundal scored 13 points apiece for Manteca, which improved to 12-2 overall and 1-0 in league play.
Angel Perez also had seven for the Buffaloes, who led 28-18 at the half.
Mike Orsorno paced the Spartans (0-1) with 13 points.
Manteca 48, Lathrop 41
Ryan Brock poured in 17 points and Ascari Johnson had 11 for Manteca, which weathered a second-half barrage by Lathrop (0-1).
The Buffs (1-0, 4-7) led by 16 at the intermission, but the Spartans clawed back behind Adonis Payton. He had 19 points and 15 rebounds, including 13 points in the third quarter.