SONORA -- Manteca High's Kiwi Gardner has been a lightning rod for controversy this season, and it was no different Wednesday.
Given a pre-game warning that he would be under the watchful eye of the officials, according to coach Dave Asuncion, the junior guard found out just what that meant as he prepared to celebrate another Buffalo victory.
"The officials came to me before the game and said 'We've got an eye on 32, and he's not going to get away with anything,' " Asuncion said. " 'We're going to watch him closely.' "
The officials saw something they didn't like in the final seconds, as they whistled Gardner for a technical after he made what looked to be a game-clinching steal with 4 seconds left.
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That allowed Sonora to score five points in 3 seconds, but that wasn't enough to change the outcome as Valley Oak League champion Manteca escaped with a 68-64 win.
"The officials had told us earlier that we were not to incite our crowd, and after making a steal, they called Kiwi for it," Asuncion said.
Manteca (21-5, 14-1) was up 66-59 when Gardner stole an errant pass. Before he took a dribble, though, he was whistled for a technical. The officials could not be reached for comment after the game, but Asuncion said there was no profanity on Gardner's part. The district's top scorer at 24 points a game, he scored 12 after sitting the first quarter for violating team rules.
Sonora's Alex Kiriluk hit two free throws to make it 66-61, then the 6-foot-4 junior hit a 23-foot trey and suddenly it was a two-point margin.
The Wildcats fouled point guard Ernie Pimentel with 0.6 seconds to play, and Manteca's point guard ended any suspense by hitting two free throws for the four-point win.
Manteca had already clinched the league title -- its only league loss came when Gardner was serving a suspension for allegedly bumping an official -- but there was plenty at stake. The Buffs are No. 6 in the Sac-Joaquin Section power ratings, and the top eight will host openers next week.
A loss could have sent Manteca to the bottom half of the seedings, forcing a road trip. Asuncion said his team is prepared for Wednesday's game.
"The schedule worked well for us, playing Sierra, Sonora and now East Union, our big rival, on Friday," he said.
Sonora (16-10, 10-5) was 15th in the power ratings, but only the top 16 go on, so the 'Cats face a must-win finale Friday at rival Oakdale. It looked as if Sonora might be taking momentum into its last game.
With 6-5 Zach Gorgas (21 points) dominating the Buffs' front line, the game was tight throughout the second half.
Sonora tied it at 59 with 1:55 to go and had a chance to go ahead, but Aren Forster's errant passes on the next two possessions ended that idea.
Manteca's Gerry Cooper hit two free throws after the first turnover, and Ernie Pimentel (21 points) hit another for a 62-59 lead. Sonora fouled after its next two misses, and Gardner and Pimentel hit two free throws each for the 66-59 lead.