STOCKTON -- On three straight mid-second quarter drives to the basket, Kiwi Gardner found himself on the floor, with the ball headed the other way, and Manteca coach David Asuncion had seen enough.
As soon as Weston Ranch completed the fast break after the third drive, Asuncion took two steps onto the floor and said something loud enough to catch the attention of a referee and earn a technical foul.
The resulting free throws gave the host Cougars a two-point lead. But Asuncion's message was heard loud and clear -- by the officials and by his Buffaloes.
From that point, Manteca -- led by Gardner -- was an unstoppable offensive force and pulled away to an 89-75 Valley Oak League victory.
"Sometimes technicals have that effect, but it wasn't planned," Asuncion said. "I wanted to make sure the ref knew I was going to protect my players. I felt like I had to protect Kiwi somehow. I felt like that ref was letting too many things go and we can't afford for him to get hurt."
The score was 29-27 after the technical, which came with three minutes, 28 seconds left in the half. Gardner had nine of Manteca's final 14 points in the quarter, as the Buffaloes grabbed a 41-33 halftime lead.
The offenses only took off from there. Over the final 19:28 (32 seconds short of a college half,) Manteca outscored Weston Ranch 62-46, with Gardner scoring 36 of his game-high 41 in that span.
He went 16 for 18 from the line, as suddenly (after the technical foul) those previously unheeded drives to the basket resulted in whistles going Manteca's way.
"Coach does that on purpose, I think," said Gardner, who added seven rebounds, seven assists, six steals, eight turnovers and two missed breakaway dunks. "I think he does it to tell all of us it's time to pick it up."
The win put the Buffaloes in complete control of the VOL race. They're 18-5 overall and 11-1 in league after avenging their only VOL loss, which came on Jan. 8 with Gardner out of the lineup.
The Cougars had entered the week tied with Manteca for first place in the league, but now are three games back at 12-11, 8-4 after losses to Sonora and Ceres led up to Saturday's homecourt loss.
"We went to Sonora, then we went against a Ceres team that always plays us tough," said Weston Ranch coach Ryan Bono. "Our guys were a little bit tired. We still played hard and it was an end-to-end game and maybe we had a little less gas at the end to step up defensively. But overall I'm real pleased with our effort."
Neither team could claim a stellar defensive performance, but it's seldom in any team's best interest to attempt to trade baskets with the high-flying Buffaloes. Nathan Moises and Jason Steele had 21 points each for Weston Ranch, while Ernie Pimentel complemented Gardner with 25 points.
"We haven't scored that many points in a while," Asuncion said. "Weston Ranch pushed the ball up quick and tried to get easy buckets, and we kinda like that pace."
The defensive futility reached its abyss in the third quarter, when a parade of layups by both teams resulted in Weston Ranch outscoring Manteca 28-27 to pull within seven. They got no closer.
"I thought it was a typical Manteca-Weston Ranch game, usually a high-scoring game," Bono said. "For us, 75 points is a good night and I know 89 is legit for them. For us, our goal defensively was containment -- trying to keep Manteca from penetrating and obviously we didn't do a good job of that tonight."