By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With half the North Bay League girls’ basketball season now in the books, Santa Rosa has established itself as the team to beat in the league and by all appearances the Panthers are in complete command of their own destiny.
Case in point on Friday night, the first-place Panthers (14-4, 6-1) continued their winning ways with a 50-44 NBL road win against pesky Cardinal Newman (12-5, 3-4). Santa Rosa led wire-to-wire thanks in large part to an early 12-0 lead the Panthers built with 3:33 to play in the first quarter.
“Getting that 12-0 lead really helped because nothing else was falling the rest of the game,” Santa Rosa’s 6-foot-4 center Morgan Bertsch said. “The last three quarters were a real struggle for us. But we won the game and that’s what matters.”
Bertsch was dominant on both ends of the court, scoring 18 points, blocking several Cardinals shots and yanking down 21 rebounds. Cardinal Newman, by comparison, had 27 rebounds as a team.
“Santa Rosa played hard and got some things inside and got some easy looks close to the basket,” Cardinal Newman coach Monica Mertle said. “But all our girls played hard on defense.”
The task of guarding Bertsch, a junior, was undertaken by freshman Tiffany Salinas in the Cardinals’ man-to-man defensive scheme. Salinas, who battled despite a substantial height and experience disadvantage, was largely unable to slow down Bertsch around the basket and on the boards.
“(Salinas) played some good defense, but at some point experience comes into play,” Bertsch said.
Santa Rosa coach Steve Chisholm was unavailable for postgame comments as he left the gym almost immediately after the final buzzer due to an undisclosed family emergency.
In addition, the Panthers’ Devin Murray also left the gym after banging her head on the floor in a collision with a Cardinals player in the second quarter. Murray was taken to the emergency room for precaution, determined not to have a concussion and released.
The loss keeps Cardinal Newman in the middle of the pack in the NBL. The Cardinals were led by Kylie Kiech with 15 points.
Things were out of sorts for Cardinals in the first four minutes of the game as they came out ice-cold offensively and tentative on defense.
“I think we just had to get our motor going a little bit, but thankfully we got going after that (first four minutes),” Mertle said. “It did hurt us at the beginning to come out slow.”
For the remainder of the game the Cardinals were playing catch-up. Cardinal Newman did chip away at Santa Rosa’s lead little by little. Santa Rosa’s advantage shrank to 18-9 at the end of the first quarter and to 29-22 at halftime.
Cardinal Newman came out hot to start the third quarter and went on an 8-2 run and pulled to within one point after Kiech hit a jumper to cut Santa Rosa’s lead to 31-30.
The Cardinals were not able to overtake the Panthers, however, and Santa Rosa restocked its lead to 39-31 by the end of the third quarter. The Panthers widened the lead to 47-36 with 3:34 to play in the game and was able to weather a Cardinals run in the closing three minutes.
“I’m happy with our effort, the girls fought and played hard,” Mertle said.