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.