By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For three quarters on Wednesday night, the visiting Marin Catholic boys basketball team went toe-to-toe with the taller and bulkier Cardinals in a semifinal of North Coast Section Division 4.
Then came the fourth quarter.
Second-seed Cardinal Newman (29-2) used it superior size to outscore the lanky third-seeded Wildcats 18-12 in the final eight minutes on its way to a 57-48 victory. The Cardinals were spearheaded in the fourth quarter by Kenny Love’s two huge buckets, including a shot-clock buzzer-beating 3-pointer, and by Corey Hammell, who was a beast on the glass. Hammell, who did the dirty work offensively in the lane most of the game, came alive on the boards in the final minutes, pulling down Cardinal Newman’s final eight defensive rebounds.
“Marin Catholic played really hard. We knew they would fight us until the end,” Hammell said. “We had a size advantage and we knew we had to outwork them on the boards and we would grind them down, which we did at the end.”
The Cardinals play in the NCS Division 4 championship game Saturday at an East Bay site yet to be announced against top-seed Salesian (Richmond), which defeated fourth-seeded Arcata in Wednesday night’s other semifinal.
Cardinal Newman, which has nine seniors, will be heavy underdogs against hyper-fast and athletic Salesian (29-3). In order for the Cardinals to win, they will have to punch well above their weight class.
“We played a great second half tonight but we will have to play four quarters against Salesian,” Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli said. “We are going to have to play a great 32 minutes on Saturday or we are not going to have a chance.”
The game against Marin Catholic (23-8) was tight for three quarters as the scrappy Wildcats were determined against the more physical Cardinals. Cardinal Newman led 13-12 at the end of the first quarter but trailed 24-23 at halftime.
“Marin Catholic is a very, very good basketball team. They have some guys that can play,” Bonfigli said. “They outplayed us in the first half. The second half was all us. We dominated the last 12 minutes of the game.”
A key component of the outcome was the void in scoring by the Wildcats’ Patrick Conroy, who was tagged with his fourth personal foul early in the third quarter and missed large parts of the second half. Conroy (16 points-per-game average) scored only two points on the night, via free throws.
“We took their top scorer out of the game,” Bonfigli said. “He didn’t have a field goal.”
Without Conroy as a central cog of the Wildcats offense, Marin Catholic had to readjust its game plan in the second half.
“Conroy didn’t play the whole third quarter, that hurt our offense,” Marin Catholic coach Mike Saia said. “But we were right there (toward the end) and we gave ourselves an opportunity to win.”
Cardinal Newman was led by Love with 17 points and Hammell with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Kyle King chipped in eight points off the bench.
The Wildcats’ Charlie Duysen led all scorers with 21 points, and Nick Calcaterra added 15 points.
The most critical points for the Cardinals came late from Love, who struggled offensively most of the game. Love drained a long 3-pointer as the shot-clock buzzer blared to give Cardinal Newman a 50-45 lead with 1:53 to play. The play sent the packed Cardinals gym into a frenzied celebration.
Love scored dramatically again less than a minute later as he drove the lane to sink a bank shot with one second on the shot clock to give Cardinal Newman a 52-45 lead with 1:05 to play. The Wildcats had no answers and went down quietly in the final minute.
“That 3 by Love was a back-breaker. We defended him really well but he hit a few big ones in the end,” Saia said. “Cardinal Newman is a load physically. They had us by 20 pounds at every position.”
The Cardinals used their size advantage to win the battle of the boards, 35-22. Cardinal Newman’s inside game also generated a sizeable advantage in free throw attempts and points, with the Cardinals hitting 16 of 24 and the Wildcats only 5 of 7. Cardinal Newman had more turnovers, 15 to 13, and ball possession will be critical for the Cardinals against Salesian.
“When we play Salesian we are going to have to control the ball, play better transition defense and rebound better as a team,” Bonfigli said. “Salesian is a great team and we have a lot of respect for them. But we aren’t going to the championship game to come in second.
“I love this team; they are unselfish and are a great band of warriors. They have some heart and soul.”