CIF basketball playoffs: Cardinal Newman boys hang on to win thriller 48-47

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Connor Rubattino was standing in the middle of the key, perfect position to watch the life of Cardinal Newman’s basketball season flash before his eyes.

“The ball seemed to hang on the rim for 10 seconds,” said Rubattino, the Newman junior.

Cardinal Newman's Connor Rubattino goes to the basket as Half Moon Bay's Austin Hilton defends during the game held at Cardinal Newman High School, Saturday, March 14, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman’s Connor Rubattino goes to the basket as Half Moon Bay’s Austin Hilton defends during the game held at Cardinal Newman High School, Saturday, March 14, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

The shot by Half Moon Bay’s Andrew Saffold caught the rim, bounced off the backboard and hit the rim again before bouncing away. The final buzzer sounded, Saffold put his hands over his face in anguish and the Cardinals escaped with a gripping 48-47 victory in a CIF NorCal quarterfinal playoff game Saturday night.

Newman had to fight back from an 11-point, second-quarter deficit, and never led by more than four at any point of the game. The Cardinals gave up some easy baskets early and missed free throws down the stretch. It all added up to a tense night at Fitzgerald Gym. Then again, this team is used to the pressure.

Cardinal Newman was six points down with 40 seconds left against Casa Grande, eight points behind with 1:21 remaining against Washington and five down with a minute to play against Windsor, and managed to pull out wins in all of them.

The Cardinals needed every bit of resolve and experience they could muster against the visiting Cougars of the Peninsula League North.

Newman went up 47-43 with 38 seconds left on a pair of free throws by senior James Ryan, but Half Moon Bay stuck tight. Cougars power forward Case DuFrane hit an outside shot that one referee signaled as a 3-point attempt before it was ruled a two-pointer that made the score 47-45. After a series of timeouts, Cardinals senior center Gunnar Walker was fouled inside at the 11-second mark.

Walker missed his first free throw to boost the tension, but he hit the second for a three-point lead. It was a huge make, as Saffold sped down the court for a layup, and after a Half Moon Bay timeout the Cardinals’ Justin Botteri missed a pair of free throws with 4.8 seconds on the clock. Cardinal Newman made just 5 of 10 from the line in the fourth quarter.

As the Cougars prepared to inbound the ball for a final shot, Newman coach Tom Bonfigli had one clear directive for his team: Don’t foul. Half Moon Bay coach Rich Forslund had one for his boys: Take it to the basket.

Saffold ran nearly the length of the court, shadowed by Cardinals sophomore Damian Wallace, who twisted his body away from the ball handler to avoid a whistle. Saffold wound up with a pretty good look, and he let it fly about 14 feet from the basket.

“We got us right to where we needed to be, had a chance to win the game,” Forslund said. “That shot — I tell you what, if I’m on the other bench I’m going ‘Oh, my God.’ That thing just missed going in.”

(See more photos from the game)

Cardinal Newman (30-3) will play another home game in the NorCal tournament, Tuesday night against a familiar foe — Saint Mary’s, an upset winner over Sacred Heart Prep on Saturday. The Cardinals have already beaten the Panthers twice this season, 42-41 on Dec. 13 and 73-56 in the North Coast Section playoffs.

Half Moon Bay (25-5) went on a 13-4 spree to open the second quarter and pull to a 28-17 advantage, its largest of the game. The shots simply weren’t falling for the Cardinals.

Cardinal Newman was generally playing well on the defensive end, but the Cougars got several wide-open baskets down low on backdoor cuts, cross screens and heady passing.

“At the beginning we weren’t really talking on defense, switching screens and communicating,” said Botteri, Cardinal Newman’s 6-5 senior big man. “At halftime we realized we’d need to step it up and go to more team defense and communicate more.”

Austin Hilton, Half Moon Bay’s 6-foot-6 center, did most of the damage. Hilton scored 16 points in the first half, but just one in the second half as he got into foul trouble, picking up his third with 2:05 to play in the third quarter.

Newman’s defense tightened up considerably after halftime. Half Moon Bay, in fact, scored just one field goal in the third quarter (and it didn’t come until about a minute and a half remained) while being outscored 14-5. The Cardinals finally went back on top with 2:40 left in the third on a pull-up jumper by Wallace and never trailed again.
Botteri led his team with 15 points. Ryan added 10 and Rubattino had nine.