MANTECA — Placer High had a plan to take down Manteca by shutting down the Buffaloes' perceived "one-man offense," but Gerry Cooper and his mates in the frontcourt made sure it didn't happen.
With the Hillmen busy focusing on Kiwi Gardner, the Buffs' dynamic guard who averages 23 points a game, there was no help for Placer's overmatched defenders down low.
"Kiwi took just one shot in the third quarter, and we still won," said 6-foot-4 Gerry Cooper, whose leaping ability intimidated the Hillmen. "That feels good, because they felt we had Kiwi, nothing else."
Cooper and his frontcourt mates E.J. Godfrey and C.J. Rivas destroyed that myth.
The trio scored 32 and dominated the second half as the Buffaloes beat Placer 81-63 in front of a standing room-only crowd in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 3 opener.
The win sends the No. 7 Buffaloes (22-5) to face No. 2 Vista del Lago (26-2) for a quarterfinal on Friday. Vista beat Sonora 50-35 in its opener.
"We got a lot more physical in the second half," said Cooper, who had five blocks and 10 rebounds. "The guards got the ball in to us in a good spot, and we went to the basket."
The game was tied at 35 going into the second half, but Cooper scored six points early in the third quarter to trigger a 9-2 run to make it 44-37.
Godfrey, a 6-5 wide-body who was 5-of-7 from the floor with 12 points, went inside for two more baskets. The 6-foot, 230-pound Rivas made it 52-45 when he muscled a shot in, then Gardner took — and made — his only shot of the third quarter.
With the clock running out, he raced past a couple of Placer players and popped in a 10-footer before the buzzer.
It clearly energized Gardner, who became a highlight reel in the fourth quarter. He had 14 of his 26 points in the final period, a blur as he ran past the flatfooted Hillmen.
"Kiwi makes everyone on defense look for him first and it opens up things for the rest of us," said Rivas, who had 10 points and nine rebounds.
With Gardner on the perimeter — one defender was dedicated to him, and another was always a few feet away — Cooper, Godfrey and Rivas stationed themselves inside.
The thinner Hillmen struggled to front the bulky Rivas and Godfrey, and Cooper was too quick for Placer to stop.
"Once we got position, the passes started coming," Cooper said. "There was space inside because they were out on Kiwi. The momentum started to shift when we got inside."
Rivas and Cooper also had key roles on defense, limiting Placer to 28 points in the second half — after the Hillmen scored 27 in the first quarter.
Cooper swatted shots and altered others, while Rivas began leaning on slender 6-3 forward Josh Klem. That strategy caused distress for Klem.
He had 17 points in the first half, hitting seven of his eight shots, but didn't score in the second half until 5:23 was left and Manteca was up 60-49.
"I was fronting him in the second half, so he wasn't getting a clear look for the passes," Rivas said. "Our advantages is we have some muscle inside, and we finally started using it in the second half."
Placer has surprised Manteca early with a weaving passing game above the key, patiently moving side to side before penetrating the middle when it saw an opening. As the guard penetrated, one of Manteca's frontcourt players would shift into the middle to prevent the easy layup.
That left Klem open underneath, and Placer's guards were quick to pass it to him. That allowed the Hillmen to go up 27-21 after a quarter, but Manteca's quickness began to wear them down the Hillmen in the second period.
Those once-crisp passes began losing most of their zip and the Buffs' Ernie Pimentel and Taylor Hasal (12 points, three treys) began batting away balls that had been finding their way in to Klem.