By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In one of the biggest upsets in the 31-year history of the Sonoma County Classic, Acalanes defeated Cardinal Newman, 57-55, in the championship game Saturday night.
Coming into the tournament, the Dons had the second-worst record (2-8) in the eight-team field. However, they didn’t look like a futile team in their three tournament games at Piner High. In successive nights, they knocked off the Prospectors, Santa Rosa and Newman.
After watching Acalanes hold on to defeat the Cardinals, Piner coach and tournament director Mike Erickson was shaking his head.
“I’d say this is the most surprising championship game we’ve had in the Classic,” he said. “I don’t think anyone thought Acalanes could beat Newman.”
The Cardinals came into the game with a 10-1 record and bragging rights as the best team in the Redwood Empire.
While the outcome was surprising, Acalanes didn’t luck into the win. The Lafayette school played at Newman’s level, leading most of the last three quarters.
The Dons were up 30-24 at halftime and in the third quarter enjoyed a 10-point advantage.
Newman battled back in the fourth quarter and took a 55-54 lead on Corey Hammell’s put-back basket with 1:15 remaining.
The lead didn’t hold up long as Kyle Kinnear came down the court and promptly nailed a pull-up jumper to put the Dons back in front.
Kenny Love then missed a 3-point shot and Matt Thomas was fouled going for the rebound. The junior made one free throw to put his team up 57-55 with 7.3 seconds left.
The Cardinals got more shot, but Love’s 3-pointer hit the rim and took a high bounce out, setting up an on-court celebration by the Acalanes players.
“Acalanes was the better team,” said dejected Newman coach Tom Bonfigli. “I don’t think our players took Acalanes seriously. We didn’t play as hard as we needed to. They outplayed us in our hometown and that’s disappointing.
“Still, we had the opportunity to win and couldn’t do it. Give Acalanes credit, they played harder than we did.”
It was understandable that the Newman players had a letdown. On Friday, they were sky-high for Mt. Eden, a team that came in 10-0. The Cardinals played one of their best games and won, 59-44.
“I watched Acalanes the first two nights of the tournament,” Bonfigli, the winningest coach in the Empire, said. “They weren’t playing like a team that had won only two games. I told my players that they couldn’t take them lightly, but they did.”
Acalanes coach Darrell Hirashima, Jr. said his team matured Thursday night against Piner.
“We’re young and relatively inexperienced,” he said. “The potential has been there, we just didn’t execute. Against Piner, we jelled and it carried over to the point where the kids knew they had the ability to beat Newman.
“We played our best ball of the season in this tournament and our best game was this one against Newman. It’s a testament to our kids’ mental toughness that they didn’t give up when our record was so bad.”
The Dons hit eight 3-pointers, including two by Matt Thomas in the final five minutes.
Buster Souza and Thomas led Acalanes with 15 points. Souza, who at 6-foot-7 was the tallest player in the tournament, was named most valuable player.
Hammell was the only player in double figures for Newman. He had 21. Hammell and teammate Tim McCullough were named to the all-tourney team.
Newman opens North Bay League play Wednesday night at home against Ukiah.