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SACRAMENTO -- It is an athlete's worst grind, to come so close to the dream, so close the athlete can see it, smell it, taste it, embrace it. So close it feels almost like a second skin, ready to inhabit you, to exhilarate you and then ...

"It's gone, right before your eyes," said Cardinal Newman forward Kyle King.

Poof. What was so outlined, so clear, so ready to acquire, poof. Gone. Evaporated. Into the ether of expectation. Newman's basketball team is grinding like that today. They saw themselves getting that close to the Division 4 State Championship Saturday afternoon at Sleep Train Arena. They were leading Pacific Hills, 46-45, with four minutes left. The Cardinals trailed, 50-48, with 2:30 left. A 15-point underdog by Cal-Hi Sports, Newman forgot to play like an underdog.

Cardinal Newman lost by six, 58-52, and for those who weren't here, the refrain will be universal: A Southern California team beat a Northern California team for the CIF championship! What did you expect? It's a given.

Before this weekend, the South has won 11 of the last 12 D1 titles, 13 of the last 17 in D2, 15 of the last 21 in D4 and 10 of the last 15 in D5. So this wasn't an upset. So goes the refrain.

Only those who didn't see the game would make such a blind statement as that.

"Yes, they won," said Newman coach Tom Bonfigli of Pacific Hills, "but maybe they dodged a bullet."

If that sounds like a moral victory — dodging a bullet — it is nonetheless no less accurate. Both teams made the same amount of three-pointers (five) but Pacific Hills had to shoot eight more times to reach that number. Newman made two more free throws, Pacific Hill had five more rebounds. Both teams had the same number of turnovers (eight) and steals (three).

"They had more athleticism but they weren't a better team," Bonfigli said. In fact, the two teams might still be playing if it wasn't for this little tiny teeny gap in the fourth quarter in which guard Kenny Love described as "we just got a little excited in the moment." Love lost the ball off a dribble and King threw a pass out of bounds. Splitting such fine hairs, that was the difference between Newman and Pacific Hills. Two turnovers. Two brief but important changes in momentum. At the wrong time for Newman. At the right time for Pacific Hills. That's how close Newman came.

So how did the players deal with this? In this respect, guard Tim McCullough was ahead of the curve Saturday.

"Celebrate," McCullough said.

McCullough had a view that extended way past Sacramento. It went all the way back to November 24, when Newman opened the season against American Canyon.

"It's good to be sad," McCullough said.

The senior indeed had it nailed right. The Cardinals won their fourth Nor Cal title. They won 32 games, a single-season record for Large Schools in the Empire. They played their two best games of the season when it mattered most, Saturday against Pacific Hills and the Saturday before against Riordan. They were one of only two D4 teams left playing basketball.

So it needs to make no apologies. Newman put themselves into a terrific position to feel a great sadness, odd as it sounds.

McCullough got that perspective immediately. For others, it will take a little longer. Corey Hammell and Love walked out of the locker room together, arm-in-arm, crying. They were feeling it and feeling it deep, where only a true competitor can feel it. They didn't want to give it up, even then. For a little added perspective, they should know what their coach told Pacific Hills point guard Jahmel Taylor right after the game.

"You're a great player," Bonfigli told Taylor, "and (University of) Washington is lucky to have you."

Newman didn't lose to five guys named Moe. They lost to a team that deserved to be a D4 champ because the Bruins made two fewer critical mistakes than the Cardinals. Newman has no reason to hide from this game, no reason to remain silent about it.

They should remember everything about it: the Newman student in the stands looking like Moses in sackcloth and ashes; Taylor putting on a show for a television cameraman before the game by dribbling between his legs and around his back near the Newman bench and in front of the Newman student section; the handing-out of the medallions; the look in the eyes of the Pacific Hills players in the fourth quarter when Newman held that 46-45 lead; the fact that Pacific Hills' 58 points is its fourth-lowest point total of the season.

"You put a blanket on the wall," said assistant coach Josh Jenkins told the team after the game.

Jenkins was referring to the 2013 Nor Cal championship blanket, the fourth such decoration that will be stapled inside the John Fitzgerald Gymnasium.

It all depends on whether one sees the glass half-full or half-empty.

Newman is 0-4 in CIF state championships. Newman has four Nor Cal blankets on the wall. Which sentence contains the most resonance? Easy.

"One day, and God willing I'll live that long to make it to 75," Bonfigli said, "I'm going to be sitting on my porch with Corey, Kenny and Timmy. And I'm going to tell them we came this close to winning state."

Bonfigli put his right thumb and forefinger together. There was barely a space between the digits. Even now, just minutes after the game, the interpretation of how it happened was enhanced romantically. Years from now, Bonfigli might place his forefinger and thumb together. And why not? For the players who were on the floor Saturday afternoon, and the coaches who watched them, it felt that close, when the dream was so close, they hugged it.

"That's what they'll remember," Bonfigli said. "That they were right there."

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.