Manteca’s Loretta Kakala could feel the anxiety building before the start of Friday’s game.
The highly-touted sophomore made her first appearance at The Dalben Center since transferring from East Union to its oldest and most bitter rival late in the summer.
And butterflies the size of basketballs were fluttering about the Buffaloes’ locker room.
“She was nervous about this,” Manteca coach Mary Ann Tolbert said. “She’s a 15-, 16-year-old kid and this was a lot of pressure. She handled it well.”
Did she ever.
Kakala tallied a double-double for the ages, finishing with 31 points and 23 rebounds as the Buffaloes rallied back from a small fourth-quarter deficit to defeat East Union 52-49.
The game featured all the requisite buzz of a rivalry tilt, especially one as emotionally charged as this. There were 14 lead changes, blood splatter and hard fouls, and a buzzer-beater that bounced harmlessly off the backboard.
“This was huge not just for us but for Loretta and the playoffs,” said Tolbert, whose team improved to 4-2 in the Valley Oak League, one game ahead of East Union for the third and final playoff spot.
“This was a testament to what we really have. This was a test of ‘Do we have the stamina to finish it off?’
They did, thanks to Kakala.
She also had six blocks and two assists as the Buffaloes overcame 19 turnovers.
“I couldn’t do it without the help of my teammates. They were reassuring me. They were giving me the confidence to go and out play,” said Kakala, who just last year teamed with Olivia Vezaldenos and Ruby Dauby to lead East Union back into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
Now, she’s a Buffalo.
Tolbert is thankful, too. Kakala scored 12 of the team’s final 17 points and her pass to Rubel Dehal (eight points, six assists) for a wide-open 3 gave Manteca the lead for good with 4:23 left.
“She was unstoppable tonight and it shows what kind of quality player she is,” Tolbert said. “Teams are going to have to go into that zone to defend us, and even when they do, she’s still going to shoot the lights out. I’m super proud of her.”
East Union didn’t go quietly and had a chance to send the game into overtime.
Dauby raced the length of the court with four seconds left, but her runner banged off the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
The fearless sophomore proved to the antithesis to Kakala in both size and style. While Kakala stood head and shoulders over East Union’s post, the 5-foot, 4-inch Dauby was the smallest player on the floor.
She used her quickness to wreak havoc on the Buffaloes.
Dauby finished with a team-high 22 points, darting inside and out. She connected on three 3-pointers and had eight points in the third quarter, including five straight to give East Union its biggest lead, 36-31.
Dauby spun through the lane, kissing her reverse layup off the glass to make it 33-31. About 30 seconds later, she took advantage of a slow switch on a screen and knocked down an uncontested 3 from the top of the arc.
“Ruby was just nails. She kept us in the game,” East Union coach Jim Agostini said. “Ruby is a young lady that’s played a lot of basketball and now it’s paying off for her. You’re really starting to see the maturation process with her.”
She wasn’t alone.
Anna Wood pulled down 17 rebounds for the second straight game. She completed her double-double with 13 points. Her free-throw line jumper with about five minutes to go tied the game at 41s.
Vezaldenos’ struggles from the floor continued, but the reigning All-Area MVP found other ways to contribute. She finished with seven points and six assists.
“I couldn’t question their competitiveness. They gave me everything,” Agostini said.
Like Kakala, East Union also found motivation in her return. The Lancers led after the second and third quarters, but ran out of steam midway through the fourth.
“They were anxious and looking forward to the challenge,” Agostini said. “When you lose somebody that was once part of your family ... it adds a lot besides the game.
“Our team may have come up on the short end, but we gained a lot confidence and we understand what we need to do to jockey for one of those (playoff) spots in the end.”
Manteca 41, East Union 33
The Buffaloes led by as many as 14 in the fourth quarter, but East Union whittled the deficit to seven with about a minute to go.
Manteca was led by Kayla Holmes, who finished with a game-high 14 points. J.J. Santos chipped in seven.
Kianna Ahlstrom had eight points and Faith Stofferahn finished with seven for the Lancers.
Manteca 40, East Union 23
Sarah Inderbitzin poured in 11 points and Chandler Neiman had 10 for the Buffaloes, who started the game with a 13-4 run.
Kayla Coffman and Kayla Montoya anchored East Union’s attack with eight and six points, respectively.