Jim Agostini sauntered back into Winter Gymnasium alongside assistant coach Rick Marsh, and as the door closed behind them their East Union girls basketball team could be heard celebrating a much-needed 58-48 win over Manteca on Thursday.
“Very rewarding for these girls,” Agostini said.
With two games left in the regular season, the red-hot Lancers (8-4, 17-7) have moved ahead of Manteca (7-5, 15-10) in the race for the third and final automatic playoff berth in the Valley Oak League.
It was a far different result from the first meeting between the city’s oldest rivals back on Jan. 23 when 6-foot-2 Loretta Kakala returned to East Union’s Dalben Center and spearheaded a dramatic 52-49 win with an outstanding 31-point, 23-rebound effort. Kakala, a sophomore, transferred to Manteca at the start of the school year and has the Buffaloes contending for a postseason appearance.
This time the shots fell for East Union, led by the dynamite guard tandem of Olivia Vezandenos and Ruby Daube. And this time Kakala was handcuffed, partly by foul trouble. She fouled out of the contest with 5:23 remaining and her team down, 48-36, while settling for 10 points and seven rebounds.
The Lancers never trailed in the final three periods and used a decisive 12-2 run in the second to get separation.
“They’ve had to read a lot about Loretta and Loretta’s a special player, but tonight our team was unstoppable,” Agostini said. “They were on a mission and they played with tremendous heart and character tonight.”
The Lancers have won six of their last seven since losing to Manteca, and the 67-48 loss to still-unbeaten Kimball was a six-point game midway through the fourth quarter. Manteca, meanwhile, dropped its third straight and needs East Union to lose at least one of its last two in order to have a shot at securing an automatic berth.
“They came and beat us in our house so we really, really wanted to get them in their house,” Vezaldenos said.
The Manteca Bulletin’s reigning All-Area MVP appears to have shaken off her midseason funk. On Thursday she paced the Lancers with 23 points and six rebounds, and Daube added 19 points and four steals. East Union flourished with their two guards attacking the rim. If they weren’t putting up shots themselves they were dishing it off to teammates in the post. It also helped East Union get to the foul line, where they were 20 of 25 for the night.
“That’s a difference-maker, obviously,” Agostini said. “It was a difference-maker in the first meeting. We were 4 of 14, Olivia goes 3-for-23 (from the field) in that game and we lose by three. We took our medicine and Manteca won and they deserved to win, but they didn’t get our best punch either.”
Manteca certainly wasn’t at its best Thursday. On top of Kakala’s foul situation, the Buffaloes were minus guard Lejla Pepic and back-up center Kelly Ramos for the night. Leah Manuleleua played sick but still managed to produce nine points and 10 rebounds.
Rubel Dehal scored 13 points to lead Manteca, and Elizabeth Tolbert had 12 to go with 12 boards, four assists and four steals.
“I’m not trying to make excuses by any means; they beat us fair and square,” Manteca coach MaryAnn Tolbert said. “But if I would have more of my arsenal it could have been a different story.”
Making baskets could have also helped. The Buffaloes went 4 minutes, 35 seconds without a field goal during East Union’s back-breaking second-quarter spurt, as uncontested layups and perimeter attempts were off the mark.
“We were getting open shots, getting the looks we wanted and we were executing,” coach Tolbert said.
Another key for East Union was post play. Kakala had her way at Dalben Center but had less room to roam with 6-1 Rena Dragony and 6-foot Ciarra Goodwin patrolling the paint in the rematch.
“They give us just enough of a presence,” Agostini said. “We don’t need 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) or 10 and 10. We just need a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
What they provided Thursday was more than enough.
Dragony was out with a high ankle sprain in the first rivalry tilt, and while she herself ran into foul trouble Thursday she made her presence felt in the fourth quarter when she scored all six of her points. Goodwin scored all four of hers in the fourth and had seven rebounds overall. Anna Wood chipped in six points 10 rebounds.
Agostini said Goodwin has come up big during East Union’s current hot streak, and the addition of Dragony only makes the Lancers stronger.
East Union has one more major challenge left in its quest to make the playoffs. Second-place Weston Ranch visits Dalben Center on Saturday night and remains a game out of first. The Cougars previously mauled the Lancers, 58-35.
“Weston Ranch is a good team,” Agostini said. “Chris (Bauer) has them playing very well and they’re in a great spot in the race. We’re going to show up and we’re going to play.”
East Union then closes the regular season Tuesday at home against Central Catholic. Manteca hosts Sierra and Oakdale. If East Union and Manteca end up tied for third, a coin flip will determine which team advances. The loser could still make it through as an at-large qualifier.
“There is still a lot more basketball left to play,” Agostini said.
Manteca 37, East Union 32
Sierra Leyba scored 12 points to lead the Buffaloes’ come-from-behind victory.
Kayla Holmes contributed nine points, and J.J. Santos had seven. Haley Gosney finished with eight and was one of 10 East Union players to score.