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Buffs survive scare; win away from championship
Manteca point guard Kiwi Gardner gets around Weston Ranch defender Derrick Skyes. - photo by HIME ROMERO
WESTON RANCH — It was a 32-minute passing-of-the-torch ceremony, but defending Valley Oak League champion Weston Ranch didn’t give up that torch so easily.

The Cougars gave title hopeful Manteca quite the scare Friday, battling back from double-digit deficits and closing in by three with 1 minute, 37 seconds left after John Carungay hit one of two free throws.

Kiwi Gardner and Ernie Pimentel sank four consecutive free throws to seal the Buffaloes’ heart-thumping 74-67 victory that has them one win away from securing at least a share of the program’s first VOL championship in 20 years.
“A lot of people have been overlooking Weston Ranch, and after our Sierra game (last Friday) everybody was saying that we won the VOL,” Manteca forward Nick Scheible said. “So we knew they had some motivation to beat us.”

Scheible gave Weston Ranch (8-4, 13-11 overall) fits from inside and out, finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds. Pimentel added 17 points, while Gardner led all scorers with 27 points to go with six assists and nine steals.

Gardner looked a half step slower than usual while still recovering from an illness, but he was plenty dangerous enough for the Cougars to change up their defensive scheme with hopes of containing him.

After trailing 41-27 at halftime, Weston Ranch went to a box-and-one defense late in the third quarter with its best player, Derrick Sykes, sticking to Gardner.

It worked.

“Coach (Ryan) Tarr talked about it with about three or four minutes (left) in the third, and I said we’ll give it a try,” Weston Ranch head coach Ryan Tarr said. “It was just three minutes too late, I guess.”

The Cougars made their move at the start of the fourth, scoring eight unanswered points. Weston Ranch forward Ronnie Collins took over in crunch time, scoring six of his 10 points.

Gardner, meanwhile, was limited to just the two free throws in the fourth, placing the balance of the contest on the shoulders of his teammates.

“We feel that if they’re going to take Kiwi out, and obviously he’s our big scorer, we’ve got some guys that can step in and score,” Manteca coach Dave Asuncion said. “Defensively, we got lazy and let them beat us to the rim. They looked quicker than us. During pregame warm-ups they looked energized and we looked less energized.

“We just did what championship teams are supposed to do — we held on late to win the game.”

Weston Ranch had a balanced scoring effort with four in double digits and 10 different players contributing at least two points.

Nate Moises and Josh Inis sparked Weston Ranch in the second half. Moises scored eight of his team-high 12 points over the final two quarters, and Inis pumped in nine of his 11 during the same stretch. Jashune Stokes added 10 points.

“Honestly, all I talked about at halftime was playing smart, keeping our composure and play defense,” Bono said. “I’m very proud of the way our kids responded. Manteca showed why they’re the team to beat in the VOL.”

The Buffaloes (11-1, 22-3) can clinch a piece of the championship Wednesday at home against Sonora, which is responsible for their only loss of the regular season.

Weston Ranch, meanwhile, will try and scrap its way into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs next week with Ceres at home and second-place Sierra on the road.