By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In a marquee Big 8 Conference match-up on Friday night at Haehl Pavilion between two of the top community college men’s hoops teams in Northern California, Santa Rosa took charge early and never let up against visiting Sierra en route to an impressive 88-74 Bear Cubs victory.
The showdown between the Bear Cubs (ranked second in NorCal and third in the state) and Wolverines (third in NorCal and sixth in the state) figured to be a see-saw affair but Santa Rosa (14-4, 2-0) only trailed once, 2-0, in the game’s first minute. The Bear Cubs’ 84 points was far above the low-60s that Sierra opponent’s average.
“We played a balanced game,” Bear Cubs coach Craig McMillan said. “Overall we played good defense, had energy and had a good game … I was very happy with our effort.”
The most telling statistic was turnover ratio — Sierra had 19 to only seven for Santa Rosa.
“Our turnover ratio was horrendous. We shouldn’t have that many turnovers,” Sierra coach John Fusano said. “Give Santa Rosa credit on defense.”
Santa Rosa, which remains in a tie for first in the conference, came out the more effective aggressor in the first half and attacked the highly-regarded Sierra (10-5, 1-1) defense, which tried to take away Santa Rosa’s perimeter game.
“We put the pressure on Santa Rosa to attack and they spread the court and attacked the basket,” Fusano said.
“Santa Rosa played great.”
Santa Rosa’s inside attack contrasted to Sierra’s perimeter game and was the main reason the Bear Cubs had a big advantage in free throw attempts. Santa Rosa was 25 for 33 from the line while Sierra was only nine for 15.
“We normally have a high percentage of shots that are three-pointers so Sierra got right into us (on the perimeter) and forced us to attack,” McMillan said.
The Bear Cubs’ Xavier McCall had the hot hand early, pumping in 10 points in the first five minutes to give Santa Rosa a 15-10 lead.
“McCall played well,” McMillan said. “He hit some big threes, hit his free throws and played good defense. He ended some of their scoring runs with big shots.”
Santa Rosa took a 34-19 lead after an inside bucket by Bear Cub Luke Cocheran with 5:10 to play in the first half.
Sierra, however, didn’t raise the white flag and battled back by hitting four three-pointers in the final 4:24 of the first half to only trail 42-33 at the break.
The Wolverines had 11 three-pointers to Santa Rosa’s seven for the game. Sierra’s Drew Brandon had six threes and finished with 24 points to lead all scorers.
“Sierra hit 11 threes because we were sagging inside the paint and giving them the (outside) shot,” McMillan said. “We couldn’t stop Brandon.”
The first five minutes of the second half were critical for the Wolverines to try and close the gap with the Bear Cubs but instead Santa Rosa extended its lead to 16 points, 62-46, with 13:22 to play after Bobby Sharp (16 points) canned a shot beyond the arc.
McCall, who led Santa Rosa with 21 points, reappeared in the second half by burying a three-pointer in Santa Rosa’s first possession, which set the tone for the final 20 minutes for the Bear Cubs.
McCall subsequently scored seven points in a 96-second stretch midway in the second half to give Santa Rosa a 64-53 lead with 7:30 to play.
Sierra made a run late in the second half led by Brandon who nailed three 3-pointers during the Wolverines run.
Santa Rosa’s lead dwindled to 76-69 with 4:08 to play.
“We had every reason in the world to go to bed earlier and we fought and fought and Santa Rosa had to finish the game,” Fusano said.
“We climbed back up there but we weren’t able to break through.”
Santa Rosa re-established control in the final minutes with a 12-5 scoring edge to end the game.
“We had a lead but couldn’t put Sierra away,” McMillan said.
“They didn’t quit. We had to win it. I knew the game wasn’t over until about two minutes to go.”