By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa, needing a win to capture the North Bay League title, played one of its best games of the season Thursday night while defeating visiting Cardinal Newman, 70-49.
As it turned out, the Panthers claimed sole possession of the crown as Montgomery lost at Casa Grande, 44-41. The two schools began the evening with identical 11-2 records.
The title carries perks as Santa Rosa will have home court for the league playoffs that begin Tuesday and also will receive an automatic berth in the North Coast Section playoffs.
The Panthers took Cardinal Newman out of the game early. It was 23-8 after one quarter and 39-23 at halftime.
Santa Rosa had a huge height advantage and exploited it the entire game. The Panthers’ front court consisted of 6-foot-4 Morgan Bertsch, 6-foot-2 Devin Murray and 5-foot-11 Alison Wendler. The Cardinals all looked shorter than 6 feet.
Murray led all scorers with a season-high 26, Bertsch knocked down 16 and Wendler finished with six.
It was quite a turnaround for Murray. When the teams played earlier in the year, she scored only two and left the game with a concussion. Santa Rosa won that game by six.
“That was a frightening night but this made up for it,” the sophomore said. “This is the greatest feeling. I just focused on getting to the basket and getting in position to rebound. It was a perfect night.”
The game started a half-hour late because of senior night and the Santa Rosa players learned Montgomery had been defeated when they returned to the court following intermission.
“We freaked out,” Murray said. “We kept telling each other we had to play smart and the league title was ours.”
Winning coach Steve Chisholm said it was easily Murray’s best game of the season.
“She was always around the basket whether it was on our end of the court or theirs,” he said. “She ran the court and got a lot of points in transition.”
Chisholm said it was one the best games his team played.
“I’ve never seen this group so pumped up,” he said. “It was a combination of senior night and the chance to win league. They played well in all aspects of the game.”
The final four minutes of the first quarter proved to be the decisive segment of the game. The Panthers ended the period with a 12-0 run. Murray scored eight of those points.
Newman coach Monica Mertle said her team was consistently beaten in transition.
“They got a lot of lay-up baskets because they were quicker down the court,” she said. “Also, we couldn’t match up with their height.
“We did some things well, but Santa Rosa just played great.”
Sophomore Kylie Kiech led the Cardinals with 20 points. Freshman Tiffany Salinas contributed 14.
Cardinal Newman doesn’t have a senior on its roster.
The Cardinals finish the regular season with a 16-8 record, including a 7-7 mark in league. They figure to get an invitation to the NCS Tourney.
Santa Rosa will take a 21-5 mark into the postseason.