By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Each night in the North Bay League is a tune-up for Cardinal Newman in the quest for a perfect record, and the Cardinals were humming Thursday.
Finding an offensive rhythm to open the second half against Maria Carrillo, the Cardinals quickly regained double-digit leads and played their physical brand of defense to handle the Pumas, 62-38.
Equally important was Cardinal Newman’s focus in a game they were expected to win with another battle against second-place Montgomery looming Monday at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“Every game is the biggest game for us. We didn’t think about Montgomery at all,” said point guard Tim McCullough. “We look at getting better and sharper every game.”
Also aiming to improve is Maria Carrillo, a young team still finding its way following a spate of early season injuries. An energetic defense sparked the Pumas to take the second quarter, but Maria Carrillo couldn’t match Cardinal Newman’s scoring and rebounding depth much of the game.
“We did a pretty good job of stopping the penetration and our shots were starting to fall,” said Maria Carrillo leading scorer AJ John. “But they’re pretty strong.”
Cardinal Newman appeared firmly in control after a 14-0 run over the first and second quarters. The Cardinals had six different players score in the first half, led by Corey Hammell with half of his 22 on the night.
Best when pushing the pace and sharing the ball, Cardinal Newman forced Maria Carrillo out of zone defense and into matchups that favored the Cardinals.
“We have good depth on offense. We’re really selective with our shots,” said Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli.
Where the Cardinals can get into trouble is relaxing on defense and falling into a mindset of outscoring opponents.
Pouncing on opportunities off some quick Cardinals shooting, the Pumas used a 7-0 run to stay close going into the locker room at the half.
“There are times we look good. But we’re still starting to jell as a team,” said Maria Carrillo coach Will Parker.
With no shot at the section playoffs, the Pumas are playing for next season.
“We’re developing well. It’s just about going out strong,” John said. “It’s a very tough league.”
A commitment to getting the ball down low coupled with more consistent defensive pressure restored the Cardinals’ advantage and then some in the third quarter.
“Coach always wants us to push. We just stepped it up,” McCullough said.
Constants throughout the contest were Cardinal Newman’s knack for steals off passes for points in transition and a rebounding advantage, particularly around the Cardinals basket.
Continuing to burnish his credentials as a possible league most valuable player was Hammell, who rebounds as well as he scores.
When not hitting 3-pointers, Hammell is powering for points. He was 14 of 14 from the free throw line.
Hammell and fellow forward Kyle King, and guards McCullough and Kenny Love all scored around their averages.
Cardinal Newman will need a similar effort to win again over Montgomery.
The game is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday at SRJC.