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SACRAMENTO — The final five seconds of the game sped by in a blur for Cardinal Newman coach Monica Mertle. They dragged in slow motion for junior forward Hailey Vice-Neat.

Different people experience milestone achievements in different ways, apparently.

It was Vice-Neat who controlled a loose ball in the closing seconds of Cardinal Newman’s CIF Division 4 state championship game Saturday at Sleep Train Arena, and she protected it like a mother hen with an egg.

“I grabbed that rebound, and it was the longest five seconds of my life,” Vice-Neat said afterward. “I was like, when is the buzzer going off? And then the buzzer went off ... we won the state championship.”

Those are words that precious few Redwood Empire basketball players have been able to utter. The 1983 and 1984 Cloverdale boys, the 1992 Ursuline girls, the 1997 Rincon Valley Christian girls — and now the 2016 Cardinal Newman girls. You can count the local title teams on one hand.

The Cardinals etched their names into the historical record with a grueling 39-37 victory against Antelope Valley, the Southern Division champion from Lancaster.

Only once all season did Cardinal Newman score fewer points, in a 43-35 loss to McClatchy in late December. But the Cardinals couldn’t care less about the score.

They’re champions, thanks mostly to their stifling defense. Newman held Antelope Valley to 28.8 percent shooting (15 of 52), including 21.7 percent (5 of 23) in the second half, and limited the Antelopes to 13 points after halftime.

The Cardinals were especially impenetrable inside the paint, where junior center Lauren Walker blocked seven shots and grabbed 11 rebounds.

“Right off the bat, I know I let a few rebounds go,” Walker said. “So, second half, that was a big adjustment for our team: Don’t let them get any second chances.”

It was Walker who turned in the biggest play of the morning. Fittingly, it came on the defensive end, where she blocked a shot by Antelope Valley’s Tyler Smith in front of the basket with about six seconds remaining. Vice-Neat grabbed the ball and the countdown was underway.

“I’m a little heartbroken right now,” Smith said at the podium at a post-game press conference. “I was just trying to push the ball up the floor and I think I didn’t use my better judgment. I should have did something other than that. I just want to say I’m sorry to my team that I let them down.”

“You didn’t let us down,” several of her teammates interjected, shaking their heads.

Before that play, the Cardinals seemed constantly on the verge of letting the game slip away. They took a 38-31 lead with just under 5 minutes left on Vice-Neat’s long 2-pointer from the top, then fell into an offensive slumber, failing to put in a field goal over the remainder of the game.

Even free-throw shooting, normally a team strength, abandoned Cardinal Newman. Vice-Neat missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2:28 remaining. Sophomore guard Maiya Flores, the Cardinals’ best outside shooter, did the same with 28 seconds on the clock, then missed a pair from the line with 16 seconds left.

The Antelopes simply couldn’t capitalize. Mertle thought her girls’ defense was outstanding. The Antelope Valley coach, as you might imagine, framed it differently.

“I wouldn’t say honestly it was necessarily anything they did,” Deon Price said. “We made a few mistakes down the stretch in the last couple minutes. Missed about six free throws, a couple of layups, a couple of missed assignments on defense.”

Cardinal Newman’s victory was the first by a Northern California team in Division 4 since 2008.

The Cardinals led 13-11 after the first quarter, but seemed to wilt a bit in the face of Antelope Valley’s trapping defense. The Antelopes have quick feet and quicker hands, and they used their disruptiveness to score the last seven points of the second quarter, taking a 24-19 lead into halftime.

Things got worse for Newman when Antelope Valley’s Savannah Sullivan banged in a 3-pointer just 21 seconds into the third quarter, pushing the Southern California team’s lead to eight points.

It was the biggest lead by either team in the game. The Antelopes matched it at 29-21 less than a minute later.

That’s when the Cardinals ignited a 12-0 run that won them a title.

Walker scored the first four (her only points of the game), Flores followed with a 3-pointer from the left corner and Vice-Neat scored on an offensive putback and a trey of her own to give Cardinal Newman a 33-29 lead.

Vice-Neat was brilliant Saturday, with 19 points and 12 rebounds. She’s 6-foot-3 but handles the ball like a guard.

“We kind of knew that going in, that she’d be a tough matchup for them,” Mertle said.

Flores scored nine points for Newman. Sullivan led Antelope Valley with 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Smith added 10 points.

Cardinal Newman blew out a lot of opponents en route to a 31-5 record, which including a 14-0 mark in the North Bay League. This one was anything but one-sided, and that seemed to satisfy Mertle even more.

“Toughness. Toughness. That’s one thing we preach in our program,” the Ursuline High alumna said. “Kind of a mission statement we developed in the beginning was toughness and togetherness, and the game isn’t over until the buzzer goes off. So it came down to we wanted something, and we went and got it.”

The evidence will be hanging on the wall of the Cardinal Newman gym sometime soon.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: Skinny_Post.