By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Calm and confident, poised under pressure — pick a storyline and Cardinal Newman wrote another championship chapter.
Carving up Archbishop Riordan early and answering every Crusaders charge, Cardinal Newman never trailed in taking the CIF State Boys Division 4 Basketball Northern California Regional Championship. With different players hitting big baskets each quarter, Cardinal Newman earned a state title spot in the 73-66 win Saturday, the school’s fourth regional championship.
“We just wanted to come out and play four quarters strong. That’s been a big thing for us this season,” said leading scorer Kenny Love, a catalyst in the Cardinals win.
With the Cardinals crisp and controlled from the opening tip, Riordan couldn’t afford a shaky start. Yet the Crusaders didn’t find a rhythm until dealing with a deep deficit and ran out of runs in the final period.
“The shots just weren’t falling for us early,” said point guard Geru Mabrey. “We just stayed in the game and stayed focused. But we were playing a tug of war.”
Cardinal Newman pulled hard for the program’s single-season record 32nd victory.
Now the Cardinals face Southern California upstart Pacific Hills in the California Interscholastic Federation championship contest next Saturday in Sacramento.
Cardinal Newman played to form as the Nor Cal top seed. Pacific Hills, out of West Hollywood, upset the south region’s top seed and then the fifth-ranked squad stayed hot with a win in the championship contest.
“We’re excited. We just want to get it,” said Cardinal Newman power forward Corey Hammell.
The “it” would be Cardinal Newman’s first state title. The Cardinals have been on the losing end of three CIF championship contests, the last six years ago.
To bring home state title hardware, Cardinal Newman needs to play nearly flawless as the Cardinals were in defeating Riordan, the Nor Cal second seed.
Making two thirds of shot attempts for the game and commanding the rebounds, Cardinal Newman could not be caught.
“We have a little bit more size and we can score,” said Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli. “But you’ve got to make good decisions.”
The winning formula for Riordan has been rattling opponents to generate scoring opportunities.
“We have to try and make it uncomfortable,” said Riordan coach Rich Buckner. “We get up and down the floor, helter-skelter, and play solid defense.”
Cardinal Newman came out cool and composed. Setting the tone was Love, rising and ripping off 12 of his game high 26 points in the first quarter. Love capped his outburst with a 3-pointer from near mid court that swished through the hoop just before the buzzer.
“This team really pressured up. My teammates did a great job of finding me,” Love said.
Pressing on defense and generating steals, Riordan put four players in the scoring column in the second period to shave Cardinal Newman’s lead to 10 points. Three pointers — a pair from Bobby Arenas — helped the Crusaders win the second period to stay close.
“We just couldn’t get going at the start. But we didn’t get too nervous,” said sharpshooter Frankie Ferrari. “We’re hard workers.”
Momentum continued swinging.
Riordan rallied with a 12-5 run to cut Cardinal Newman’s lead in half, working the ball inside more to spread the Cardinals defense and get closer shots.
Chiefy Ugbaja was a post presence, scoring and defending.
Then a press break led to a Love old-fashioned three-point play. Four straight from the Crusaders capped by a Mabrey steal and fast-break basket was answered by Sean Martin’s first and only shot from the field, a 3-pointer.
“We knew they were going to come at us. We just stayed poised,” Love said.
A sense of urgency set in for the fourth period. The five-point spread seemed like a gulf to Riordan, but a narrow divide to Cardinal Newman.
While senior leader Mabrey would hit for 11 to carry Riordan, the Cardinals rode Hammel’s breakout quarter and sixth man Kyle King to victory.
“I knew in the fourth quarter we needed to step it up,” King said. “Coming off the bench, that is my role.”
A defining moment in the period was Hammell’s dunk on an offensive rebound to push Cardinal Newman’s advantage back to eight points. Hammell’s first slam of the season was the most dramatic of 13 points he tallied in the final period to finish with 20.
“The more I rebound, the better my offense comes along,” he said.
Yet another momentum breaking score dashed Riordan’s comeback efforts. The Crusaders, though, walked away knowing the school’s first winning campaign in five season’s has primed the program for future success.
“We built a foundation this year,” Mabrey said. “We put the program back on the map.”
Playing to the state final, this Cardinal Newman team wants to bring the Cardinals a first title.
“We get to do it again,” Love said. “It will take a great effort.”
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.