Cardinal Newman falls to Modesto Christian

By PHIL BARBER
PRESS DEMOCRAT

MODESTO — Just as coach Tom Bonfigli had hoped and anticipated, the Cardinal Newman boys played better in Round 2 of the CIF State Division 4 Basketball Championships than they did in Round 1. Unfortunately, they ran up against a much stiffer challenge in No. 2 seed Modesto Christian, falling 87-81 Saturday night in a game they could never quite crack open.
 

"This is by far the best team we’ve played all year,” Bonfigli said. “By far.”
 

But the seventh-seeded Cardinals sure made it exciting. After falling behind 12-2 right out of the chute, and trailing by as much as 17 points in the third quarter, Cardinal Newman kept creeping back.
 

When junior guard Kenny Love beat Modesto Christian's press, spun in the lane and got the roll early in the third quarter, Newman was down 64-55 with plenty of time to play.
 

But it turned into a game of punches and counter-punches, and when the Cardinals finally made a late surge, it came too late.

They cut their deficit to nine points again with 50 seconds left, to seven points with 31 seconds remaining, and finally to six when Love swished a 3-pointer from somewhere near Manteca with just two clicks left on the clock.
 

“Like I tell the kids, I’ve been here long enough to know that a win’s a win,” Modesto Christian coach Gary Porter said. “How ugly it is, whatever, we can always adjust. But that was a tough team we played — proud school, good program, well coached.”
 

The Crusaders maintained their edge, in part, by hitting 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter.
At times, this game looked like an all-star showcase. After a Cardinal Newman timeout with 5:56 remaining, Love stopped his dribble at the top of the arc and blasted a 3-pointer. The Crusaders” diminutive Ethan Cuthbertson answered with a trey of his own at the other end. Not to be outdone, Newman junior guard Tim McCullough calmly parried with another 3-pointer before the Cardinals called another timeout.
 

Love was sensational, leading all players with 36 points, though he didn’t score at all in the first quarter, and had just two points at the 1:15 mark of the second quarter. McCullough had 17 points, and junior big men Corey Hammel and Kyle King each scored 10.
 

Guard Raymond Bowles led Modesto Christian with 25 points, and 6-foot-6 post player Anthony Townes had 23. Tyras Rattler scored 19. Townes is just a freshman, Rattler a sophomore and Bowles a junior.
 

How loaded are the Crusaders? Rattler was one of the best point guards Newman faced this season, but he didn’t start the year there. Modesto Christian’s starting 1 guard was declared academically ineligible in December, and Rattler moved over from shooting guard.
 

“Defensively, we really didn’t have a lot of choices,” Bonfigli said. “We like to press, we like to trap. They made good decisions with the ball. They had to see over the top. They didn’t make a lot of mistakes. …I’m really proud of how hard my guys played.”
Modesto Christian (27-5) has one of the most acclaimed small-school programs in the state, with Division 5 state championships in 1996-97 and 2003-04. The lobby of the gym is decorated with the jerseys of esteemed alumni like Richard Midgley, who played at Cal, and Reeves Nelson, the now-infamous UCLA “bully.”
Of course, framed jerseys aren’t as impressive as flesh-and-blood celebrities. The crowd Saturday night included Sacramento Kings big man Chuck Hayes, another proud Crusader.
 

This year’s team can flat-out score. In its final league game of 2012, Modesto Christian beat Escalon 92-71. A week later, the Crusaders beat Encina Prep 97-62 in a Sac-Joaquin Section game.
 

Cardinal Newman had not scored more than 77 points this season, and had yielded more than 76 — both coming in overtime at Ukiah on Jan. 4 — but topped both of them as Modesto Christian pushed the pace.
 

“We’re giving up 46 points a game,” Bonfigli said. “I knew we couldn’t man ’em, because they’re so quick. I knew we’d have trouble guarding ’em, and I knew we’d run out of fouls.”
 

The Cardinals (27-6) held up against the Crusaders’ full-court press, turning over the ball just eight times. Bonfigli was right about the fouls, though. King picked up his third before halftime, and senior forward Chris Cavalin picked up his fourth — some would call it a cheap call — with 1:45 left.
 

Despite the uphill slog, Cardinal Newman proved its mettle by hanging with a gifted opponent.
With only four seniors playing Saturday — three for Newman and one for the Crusaders — this could be a matchup to watch in next year’s CIF playoffs, too. Bonfigli was satisfied with the way his inexperienced team bonded this year after losing North Bay League co-MVPs Xavier McCall and Bobby Sharp to graduation.
 

“We started the year, we lost nine seniors, lost two of the best players in the area,” the coach said. “We had some young kids coming back, and I thought 18 wins would be a pretty good year, because I had a hard schedule. Twenty-seven and six is a tremendous accomplishment.”
 

Modesto Christian will entertain No. 3 seed Sacred Heart prep on Tuesday.
 

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