TRACY — Joseph Sausau had the look of a confident player as he toed the free-throw line.
At that point Lathrop led Manteca by two with 20.4 seconds remaining Thursday at Tracy High’s Swenson Gym, one of two host sites of the Tracy/West Winter Holiday Classic.
Never mind that he had struggled all game from the field, and all season from the charity stripe.
“I knew I was going to make them,” the 6-foot-2 senior guard said. “Free throws are nothing to me, especially in crunch time.”
These aren’t your older brother’s Spartans.
Sausau sank both attempts and Lathrop held on to edge Manteca 47-43 and place fifth in the 16-team tournament.
It was the second game in two nights that the Spartans (6-4) were matched up with a Valley Oak League rival. On Wednesday they soundly defeated Kimball, 72-61.
The tournament as a whole is a benchmark moment for the third-year varsity squad, which has already tallied the most wins in a single season. The Spartans had never previously beaten a league opponent and just took down two with winning records.
“It feels good to know that we can hang in our league now,” said Lathrop senior Marcus Conley. “Last year we had seniors but not that many, so we got better over time. We just come out with more energy and confidence this year.”
Conley averaged 13.8 points over the past four days and earned a spot on the all-tournament team. Lathrop didn’t have any double-digit scorers Thursday, as Conley and Andrew Kovanis shared team-high honors with nine points. Sausau finished with eight.
All-tourney selection Ben Odell (12.8 points per game) helped the Buffaloes (7-5) stake an early 7-0 lead while Lathrop had trouble working through their zone defense. Odell scored nine of his 20 points in the opening quarter. Taylor Hasal added 11 points for Manteca.
“We knew what kind of game they were going to play — they were going to sit in a zone and slow it down.,” Lathrop coach Bill Slikker said. “To be honest, I think we are a quicker team than they are from 1 through 5.
“It did worry me when we got behind like that because I knew it was going to be a low-scoring game.”
Lathrop didn’t score until Ricky Chavez dropped in two free throws with 2:29 to go, but Conley provided a spark with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer closed the Spartans in, 12-7.
They went on a 13-5 run to start the second quarter and took the lead at 20-17 with Chavez’s own 3. Lathrop didn’t trail since and opened up a double-digit halftime cushion, 29-19, thanks to Sausau’s 3-pointer from the left wing with 2 seconds left.
“We made crucial mental mistakes at the end of the first two quarters that allowed them to hit those 3s,” Manteca coach Dave Asuncion said. “Even though we dug ourselves a hole we gave ourselves a chance to win it.”
The Buffaloes chipped away in the second half, outscoring Lathrop 13-5 in the third quarter tying it at 34 with Odell’s elbow jumper early in the fourth. Lathrop answered with six straight points and didn’t look back.