MANTECA — All the numbers fell back into place for Kiwi Gardner as if he'd never missed a game for Manteca High.
The junior guard scored 31 points on nine-of-14 shooting, including six of seven from 3-point range, and the Buffaloes pulled away to a 64-48 victory Wednesday night at Sierra's nearly full gym.
The statistic missing from the linescore? A big zero, reflecting the number of words he spoke to the two-man officiating crew. If it took Gardner missing the first five games of the Valley Oak League schedule to learn not to address the officials after sitting out for bumping a referee during a game, perhaps it was time well-spent on the Buffaloes' bench.
"There's really nothing to say (to the officials) and actions speak louder than words," Gardner said. "It's been what it is. I haven't played and I've been waiting to play and I played tonight and that's it. I'm happy to be back and I hope I don't have to go away again."
That's a sentiment certainly shared by all who wear Manteca green. Above all players in the Stanislaus District, Gardner stands alone as a game-changer — the one player capable of controlling the pace and even outcome of a game on both offense and defense.
"He causes havoc defensively, but he also causes heart attacks for me because he stops guarding his guy," said Manteca coach David Asuncion.
The win put the Buffaloes back in control of the VOL race at 5-1, 12-5 overall. The Timberwolves, who could have moved into a share of the top spot with a win, fell to 4-2 and 11-6.
Gardner's return to the lineup was not entirely smooth. He and backcourt running mate Ernie Pimentel both were eight minutes late for Monday's practice, so neither was in the starting lineup.
And while both missed only the opening 3 minutes, 41 seconds of play, the Buffaloes took nearly the entire first quarter to find any kind of rhythm.
Manteca scored the final four points of the first quarter over the last 40 seconds to grab an 8-7 lead, as Gardner missed a 3-pointer and a breakaway dunk — the first two shots he took.
"I was really nervous coming into the beginning of the game," Gardner said. "I haven't played in about three weeks. It happens.
"I've been practicing with the team, so there were no adjustments they had to make to me tonight; the start was all me. I had to come out and adjust to the game. We were ready."
The second quarter belonged to Gardner, and by association, the Buffaloes. Gardner scored 14 points in the quarter, ending the half with Kiwi-like flare.
He snared a rebound with about four seconds left and dribbled upcourt at full speed — one eye on the hoop, the other on the clock. He pulled up from about 25 feet and released the ball just as the buzzer sounded.
Of course it went in, and the first-quarter jitters were all but forgotten in a 34-19 halftime lead.
"He's so quick and he can shoot," said Sierra coach Scott Thomason. "We just try to contain his penetration and challenge his shots the best we can, and that's all you can do.
"We like to mix-up our defenses, but when you get down 10-14 points it's hard to go to the zone."
The Timberwolves rallied in the third quarter as guard Trevor Nogueira scored 10 of his 19 points, and pulled within 43-41 on a put-back by Grant Widmer. But Gardner stopped the rally with a 3-pointer off the dribble, then opened the fourth quarter with a steal and basket, and the Buffaloes were back in control at 48-41.
"Kiwi likes to come out and compete and entertain," Asuncion said. "You take the good with the bad there because he causes steals and turnovers. Offensively, we're good when we execute as a team, and sometimes Kiwi executes his own offense."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.