Boys basketball: Newman’s unselfish Love has inspired Cardinals

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Cardinal Newman guard Kenny Love listens to coach Tom Bonfigli talk about the upcoming state championship game during a team meeting Wednesday. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman guard Kenny Love listens to coach Tom Bonfigli talk about the upcoming state championship game during a team meeting Wednesday. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

You can’t win a basketball game if you don’t score, and few local high school players scored more frequently than Kenny Love last year. The junior guard racked up 15.2 points per game in leading Cardinal Newman to the state playoffs, and was a just a hair’s breadth behind Windsor’s Tanner Giddings in the judging for this newspaper’s Redwood Empire Large School Player of the Year award.

Most high school athletes improve between their junior and senior years, but Love’s scoring average has dropped significantly, to 11.1 points. Under different circumstances, it could be cause for alarm.

But with the Cardinals set to play in the CIF Division 4 basketball championship today at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, you can call off the shot doctors, sports psychologists, athletic trainers and guidance counselors. Love is just fine.

“He’s the most unselfish player on the team,” senior guard Tim McCullough said. “I think we’re all unselfish in our own respects, but to score 16 points a game last year, and for him to realize that we’re a better team when we can get the ball to our post guys and work inside-out — I think it was so unselfish of him, and it was huge for the team.”

While Love isn’t putting the ball in the basket as often as he did last year, Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli insisted, he’s doing just about everything else better. And that’s a big reason the Cardinals are on the verge of a major achievement.

Not every young athlete could handle relinquishing the spotlight. Love seems to be OK with it. He knew coming into this season that senior forward Corey Hammell was ready to have a breakout season.

“Playing in open gym, I’ve played a lot with Corey, so I knew how much he’d improved over the years,” Love said. “I knew how much it would be a mismatch for him as long as he could go outside, if he has a bigger man on him. And definitely he can dominate inside if he has a smaller man.”

So Love made a concerted effort to get the ball in Hammell’s hands, and the forward’s scoring has gone up, from 11.8 points per game to 16.2, while Love’s has gone down. Cardinal Newman is generally deeper this year, with a solid rotation of 10 guys. So Love no longer feels the need to adopt a shoot-first mentality.

“I’ve been trying to get more guys involved,” he said. “I knew I could hit my spots if necessary. But I’ve found more joy this year kind of helping other guys.”

Clearly, it is paying off. Newman has already set a Redwood Empire large-school record for victories in a season with 32, and is playing for a state title for the first time in six years — and just the fourth time in school history. And as the team has advanced through the playoffs, an interesting trend has emerged: Love is scoring more again.

He put up 30 points against Montgomery in the final of the North Bay League tournament on Feb. 15, and after scoring just four in a rout of Cloverdale in the first round of the North Coast Section Division 4 playoffs, has averaged 16.5 points per game since.

Love insists that’s mostly because teams have been defending the Cardinals differently.

“Especially teams in the East Bay, they play tighter D,” he said. “So I just know if I get past that first guy, I’ll have more opportunities. You don’t see as much zone in the playoffs.”

Of course, some would say the shift in defensive strategy has as much to do with opponents not being as familiar with Love and his scoring ability. It’s also possible that Love’s inner scorer has re-emerged in big games.

Think back to last year’s state playoffs. Cardinal Newman fell to Modesto Christian in the second round, but Love was remarkable. He had two points with 1:15 remaining before halftime, but finished with 36, virtually carrying the Cardinals on his back in the second half.

“That was the best performance I’ve ever been around,” McCullough said. “He was the best player on the floor, with a lot of great players.”

Love and McCullough are more or less interchangeable in the Newman backcourt. McCullough tends to play point guard and Love shooting guard, but they frequently switch it up, and Love moves to small forward at times, too. Colleges are looking at Love primarily at the point, but they certainly appreciate his versatility.

“He’s good enough to take the ball at the point,” Bonfigli said.

“He’s good enough to get the ball against a press, and dive and beat a defense. We can run him in the post, we can have him trigger the offense from the wing, we can isolate him and have him go to the basket. He can do whatever you want him to do. He’s a true triple-threat guy.”

Love — whose father, Reggie Love, played at the University of Pacific in the late 1970s — has received some interest from colleges, but won’t make a decision until after Saturday’s game is decided. He said he isn’t concerned about how college coaches might interpret his scoring plunge, and Bonfigli isn’t, either.

“No, because I talked to all the college coaches who recruited him,” Bonfigli said.

“I told them last week, ‘You know, we’ve won 30 or 31 or 32 games. He’s our leader. He’s doing everything for us. So I wouldn’t be too worried about how many points a game he’s gonna get.’”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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