Lani Tu’uga competes with the confidence of a varsity veteran, but with it comes a bit of recklessness that serves as a reminder of her youth.
She’s only a freshman, and with no seniors in the starting unit East Union is only going to get better. For now, the Lancers will enjoy this championship moment that could be the starting point of a dynastic run.
On Thursday, they clinched the outright share of the Valley Oak League title at rival Manteca’s Winter Gymnasium, winning 66-59 against one of the reigning co-champs in the regular-season finale.
“Doing this as a freshman, I’m kind of shocked,” Tu’uga said. “But it’s exciting.”
She led all players with 22 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks while making big-time plays in crunch time. Her sister Ala, a sophomore, managed 16 points and 12 rebounds despite foul trouble.
Kyshanti King, the eldest among the starting five as a junior, scored 10 of her 16 points in the fourth, chipping in eight rebounds and three steals overall. Freshman Taylor Snaer (six points, three steals) and sophomore Lauren Pablo (four points, three steals, two blocks) did their usual work on the defensive end.
“We’re a year ahead of schedule,” said Jim Agostini, who has six league titles in 13 years as East Union’s head coach.
“Didn’t know if this team could accomplish this, but they push me as a coach. They always want to watch more film, they put the work in and they make me want to be a better coach for them.”
Kyaira Jacobs paced Manteca (9-3 VOL, 19-7 overall) with 16 points, four assists and three steals. Jayda Jackson, one of five Buffaloes honored on senior night, added 11 points. Fellow senior Paige Peterson grabbed 13 rebounds to go with nine points. Jaslyn Woods also had nine points along with 10 rebounds and four steals.
A win for the host Buffaloes could have forced a tri-championship with idle Kimball (10-2, 22-6) rooting for the girls in green.
Lani Tu’uga and the rest of the Lancers (11-1, 24-4) did not cooperate. In the fourth, she helped keep the Buffaloes at bay with a Stephen Curry-like step-back 3-pointer and later hit Kyshanti King with a no-look dish for a layup that pushed their lead to 65-56 with 1:09 remaining.
“They’re going to be good,” Manteca coach Ryan Bono said of East Union. “They’re already good, but it’s just a matter of how good in the next couple of years.”
In their previous meeting, Manteca trailed by as much as 15 in the third quarter but roared back to take multiple leads before Lancers finished with five unanswered points to prevail, 58-55. Agostini called that the turning point of his team’s season, which extends into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs with a nine-game winning streak.
“They’re the veteran team, they’re the defending champ and we’re the team still trying to find our identity at that time,” Agostini said. “They just made plays at the end of the game. From that moment on, this team has just played solid basketball.”
The two teams traded scoring flurries to start Thursday’s rematch, as Manteca shot out to a 7-0 run capped by Victoria Villalvazo’s 3-pointer and East Union countered with 18 straight points of its own. The Lancers led 22-12 after the first quarter and 40-32 at halftime.
“They’re a championship team,” Agostini said of Manteca. “They’re going to fight and fight and fight.”
This time, the Buffaloes were unable to take a lead in the second half. They employed a zone defense in the third period that slowed East Union’s roll and helped them closed them in 45-44 during the opening minute of the fourth.
Manteca missed its opportunity to fully capture the momentum when the Lancers were held to a single field goal — a deep 3 by Lani Tu’uga — in the third.
“We battled back into the game but their defense was solid,” Bono said. “We can play great defense to get ourselves back into the game, but East Union’s defense was more consistent for four quarters.
“We also struggled once again to stop them in transition, and we were not able to finish around the rim. They hit big shots, we didn’t. When they needed the big shot somebody stepped up and hit a big shot for them.”
King, along with the younger Tu’uga, got the Lancers back on track down the stretch. King buried a 3, and then went coast-to-coast after grabbing a defensive rebound to give them a 56-49 lead with 4:16 remaining.
“Kyshanti’s speed is really underrated and she knows how to use it to her advantage,” Agostini said. “She has a great motor. For us, it has been different combinations of players every night.”
Manteca had a six-game winning streak snapped, but Bono is proud of how his team responded after back-to-back losses to Kimball and East Union earlier in the season.
“They put themselves back in this spot, so I tip my hat to these girls,” Bono said. “They showed their true character and tonight it just didn’t fall our way.”
Postseason brackets will be unveiled during the section’s online selection show Saturday on NFHS Network starting at 3:30 or 4 p.m.