Bill Rozak

Angela Gardella put together a magical first half on Tuesday night and helped the No. 8-ranked Sonora Wildcats pull away, and then bury, the Lathrop Spartans 66-45 at Bud Castle Gym.

Gardella, in a span of five minutes between the first and second quarters, scored 12 straight Wildcat points, including three straight putbacks off offensive rebounds - and was fouled on each.

"She had what, something like three or four 3-point plays," said Wildcat head coach Amy Santos. "She was on fire. I love her intensity. I really love her intensity. I love how excited she gets and she was great tonight."

"We worked a lot in practice on getting fouled but still trying to put the ball in the hole," said Gardella. "I just decided that I would go up strong as I could and they kept fouling me which was nice."

By the time the first period ended, Gardella had tallied nine points while also grabbing five rebounds to help Sonora jump out to a 17-8 lead.

Her scoring barrage wasn't finished.

On Sonora's first possession of the second quarter, Gardella stepped outside and swished a 3-pointer for her 12th straight point and a 20-8 lead.

"Angela came out strong and did really great," said Wildcat Jessie Fong. "She drove to the basket, she got fouled, she hit a 3-pointer - she did everything."

But the Wildcats couldn't shake Lathrop in the second quarter and went into halftime with a 31-23 lead. Gardella by then had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

During the break, Santos challenged her Wildcats, who beat the Spartans by just two points (42-40) in their first meeting on Jan. 4.

And they responded.

If the game wasn't in hand at halftime, it was moments into the third quarter.

Sonora scored nine points in the first 1:30 to open a 17-point lead. Gardella scored her team-high 17th, and final point of the night, Stephanie Chung made a couple of layups and Fong added a basket for a 40-23 lead.

Fong scored 10 points in the quarter, including a 3-pointer and Chung added seven points, including a trey, and the Wildcats went on a 23-7 run to lead 54-30 heading into the final frame.

"I felt like we did good when our coach told us to come out from halftime stronger than we did to start the game," said Fong, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists. "The last time we played them, we were kind of down and we only beat them by two. So this time we came out and showed our game. We worked together more as a team and we passed the ball well."

The Wildcats domination of the glass was a big key to their success. Sonora out rebounded Lathrop 50-34 and the Wildcats almost had the Spartans doubled up heading into the fourth quarter (42-22).

"I thought we were doing good on the boards but I didn't know how good," said Santos. "We talk about that, about how winning the boards is a key to winning the game."

For Sonora (15-7, 7-4 Valley Oak League), Gardella finished with 12 rebounds, Chung scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds, Shea Stead scored eight points and dished three assists, Bailey Henington, the team's leading scorer, tallied just two points, but dished a game-high six assists and made four steals and Bryanna Owens scored four points and hauled in eight boards.

"I was really happy with tonight's game," said Santos. "When we played them down there, we played really flat, but I was happy with the girls' effort tonight. I thought we played a great game. Hopefully this will help us gain confidence heading into the playoffs."

The Wildcats have three games remaining, on Thursday at Oakdale, Saturday at home vs. Kimball and Feb. 12 at East Union. Sonora has already defeated each team and has continued to improve as the season has gone along. The Cats pounded EU (59-36) and Oakdale (51-18) but played a tight one against Kimball (52-50).

"I feel like we have not plateaued, that we're still climbing and getter better and we talked about that before the game," said Santos. "That's hard to do sometimes late in the season. But we're improving in every second-half game we've played except one, so hopefully we continue to get better."

The Wildcats want to host a first-round playoff game and they would with their current rank (No. 8). With three wins to finish the season, Sonora likely would end up higher.

"We would really like to get a first round home game so we're really pushing for that," said Santos. "But more than that, we're playing one game at a time. We've got Oakdale on Thursday and a big one against Kimball on Saturday. So we're trying to get through the next couple before we get too ahead of ourselves. Our ultimate goal would be to host in the first round. It would be exciting."

"We're trying our hardest to get into the top eight and get a home game," said Gardella. "We wanna get a lot of fans and energy in here. We're definitely looking forward to the playoffs. They (last year's team) lost in the first round so we're trying to make it farther than that."