NCS boys basketball: Cardinal Newman beats St. Mary’s to reach Division 4 title game

Cardinal Newman's Damian Wallace drives to the basket as St. Mary's Thomas Roche defends during Wednesday night's game at Cardinal Newman High School. Newman defeated St. Mary's 73-56 to advance to the NCS finals. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

Cardinal Newman’s Damian Wallace drives to the basket as St. Mary’s Thomas Roche defends during Wednesday night’s game at Cardinal Newman High School. Newman defeated St. Mary’s 73-56 to advance to the NCS finals. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

By LORI A. CARTER
The Press Democrat

Cardinal Newman knew St. Mary’s played a smothering, pressing defense from when the teams met in December, a game the Cardinals rallied from a 13-point deficit to win, 42-41.

No such dramatics were needed Wednesday night in an NCS semifinal game at Cardinal Newman, which saw Connor Rubattino score a game-high 26 points to lead the Cardinals to a 73-56 victory.

The win sends top-seeded Cardinal Newman, 29-2 on the year, to the Division 4 sectional championship 7 p.m. Friday at Santa Rosa Junior College against No. 6. Marin Catholic (21-10).

Marin Catholic beat St. Patrick/St. Vincent, 77-65, Wednesday to advance to the final. Cardinal Newman beat Marin Catholic, 60-51, on Dec. 2 in Santa Rosa.

(See more photos from the game)

Cardinal Newman led the entire game, widening the margin to as many as 14 points early in the second quarter.

But St. Mary’s smaller but quicker team pressed on, forcing several turnovers to inch back to within 40-39 on a Kevin Warren 3-pointer with 3:11 left in the third quarter.

The Cardinals regrouped and went on a 7-0 run, punctuated by a Damian Wallace steal and a long looping pass to Justin Botteri, who dunked it to put Newman ahead, 47-39, with 1:29 left in the third.

“We dug ourselves a hole too deep to dig ourselves out of,” St. Mary’s coach Craig Battle said.

Botteri was fouled by Warren with 2:08 left in the fourth quarter and converted both free throws to put the game out of reach, 66-54.

Still, Newman coach Tom Bonfigli wasn’t confident of the win until that point.

“We were up 12 points — but with that time, there’s still a lot of basketball left,” he said.

“That’s an outstanding team,” Bonfigli said of the fourth-seeded Panthers, of Berkeley. “They are really quick, really athletic.”

Wallace finished with 16 points and Botteri had 15. Warren led St. Mary’s with 21, the only Panther in double figures.

To prepare for St. Mary’s, Rubattino said the Cardinals practiced against six defenders harassing them the length of the court.

“We knew they were going to come out and press,” he said. “It bothered us at times.”

Bonfigli praised St. Mary’s hard-running style.

“That was about as good an execution of a game plan that we have had in here in a long time,” he said. “They used a lot of energy trying to trap.”

The Cardinals relied on fundamentals to beat the pressure — pass, pass and pass again, Bonfigli said.

“We teach the bounce pass, we teach the baseball pass,” he said. “Rubattino is an even better passer than he is a shooter.”

When Cardinal Newman allowed a steal, his team showed excellent judgment to slow it down and recover, Bonfigli said. “We played really intelligent. If we did turn the ball over, we didn’t do it in bunches.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter
at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.