Vikings beat Cardinals, clinch NBL

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

To call it a playoff atmosphere wouldn’t do it justice, because we’ve seen playoff games around here that couldn’t come close to this intensity.

Montgomery's Zack Templeton drives past Cardinal Newman's Tim McCullough. Photo by Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat

It was keel-over hot in the Montgomery High gym as the Vikings hosted Cardinal Newman with the North Bay League lead on the line. Every seat in the house was occupied, and more fans stood in clusters in the corners. At least 100 people had to be turned away.

“It was electric,” Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli said. “It was a great game, and it’s a great rivalry.”

“I think of like the Duke-UNC rivalry — that’s what it was like,” Montgomery senior guard Alec Kobre said.

The Vikings — presumably North Carolina to Newman’s Duke — rode the excitement to a 54-50 victory, clinching the regular-season North Bay league title and extending their perfect league record to 12-0.

The Vikings played relentless defense, controlled the boards in the second half and played with poise down the stretch as the Cardinals frantically tried to close the gap.

Montgomery coach Tom Fitchie fully expects such composure.

“Shoot, we have 10 seniors on the team,” he said.

Cardinal Newman bombed three long 3-pointers in the final 35 seconds to make the score closer, two by Bobby Sharp and another by Xavier McCall just ahead of the final buzzer, but they weren’t enough to upend Montgomery, which led by as much as 12 early in the period.

Of course, the Vikings had a secret weapon.

It was Brian McCammon, the hard-working Vikings forward who was severely injured in a car accident Jan. 23. McCammon was released from UC Davis Medical Center on Monday, and practically his first stop was Montgomery’s gym.

“I definitely wanted to be playing with the team, but the stands were OK tonight,” McCammon said after the game.

His teammates presented McCammon with a framed photo of him flying to the basket, face grimacing with effort. Each teammate had written a message on the back, adding a signature.

“It was huge. It was huge for me, and for our kids, too,” Fitchie said of McCammon’s appearance. “We’re a pretty good defensive team as it is. But I thought the defensive intensity tonight was as good as I’ve seen.”

Not that Montgomery needed extra inspiration for this game. If Cardinal Newman had won, the teams would be tied atop the NBL. As it is, Montgomery leads by two games with two to play, and holds the tiebreaker after sweeping its rival.

The Vikings’ balanced scoring included 13 points by guard Zack Templeton, 11 by center Ben Freeland and 10 by guard Quentin Mendoza. All are seniors.

Adding to that experienced mix were a couple of younger players. Junior forward Karl Nimtz came off the bench to grab double-digit rebounds.

And then there was freshman Alec Raven. Fitchie brought him up to varsity midseason, but he missed five games with sore knees. (“He’s still growing,” the coach said.) But Raven has started to get playing time, and Monday he had eight points, including seven in the second half.

McCall led Newman with 23 points, while fellow senior Sharp had 20. No other Cardinal had more than three.

McCall and Sharp are two of the Empire’s more dynamic players, but their points were limited to rapid bursts against Montgomery. They went long stretches without scoring.

In fact, the entire Newman team suffered prolonged droughts.

Over the end of the first period and the start of the second, the Cardinals went 7½ minutes without a point. The same happened between the 2:56 mark and the :29 mark at the end of the game, a period when Cardinal Newman desperately needed a basket.

“They’re gonna make their shots, Xavier and Bobby Sharp,” Fitchie said. “But I don’t know if I recall them making many open shots. Everything was contested. … We made ’em work.”

Bonfigli wasn’t thrilled with the free-throw ratio; Montgomery shot 24, while the Cardinals shot 10.

Though the Vikings would like to take as much momentum as possible into the NBL tournament, they can afford to take a deep breath now.

Newman, meanwhile, has a game against Maria Carrillo on Wednesday that Bonfigli considers as important as this one for the Cardinals’ North Coast Section seeding. At least he was happy with his players’ efforts.

“My kids didn’t quit,” Bonfigli said. “I just wished we had about a minute longer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.