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Benefield: Windsor boys in driver's seat in NBL race

Windsor head coach Travis Taylor, lower left, leads his players in a cheer as the Jaguars maintain a lead over the Cardinals in the final minute of the fourth quarter of a boys varsity basketball game between Windsor and Cardinal Newman high schools in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday, February 7, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

KERRY BENEFIELD, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the space of about 120 minutes Wednesday night, the monthslong back-and-forth North Bay League boys’ basketball race sorted itself out: The league championship is Windsor’s to lose.

And let’s face it, that’s not going to happen.

The Windsor Jaguars did everything they needed to do Wednesday night — they came into a raucous environment in Cardinal Newman’s gym and walked out with a 50-44 win, pushing their league record to 12-1 and sending Newman to a 10-3 league record with just one game to play.

Across town, Montgomery dispatched Maria Carrillo to move to 11-2.

In the deciding night of play Friday, Windsor will take on Ukiah, a team that is winless in league and fell 64-42 to the Jags on Jan. 16, while Montgomery will play Santa Rosa.

Any way Friday night goes, Windsor gets a share of the league title. Bets are the Jags will have it all to themselves.

Cardinal Newman Tom Bonfigli said as much.

“It’s shaking out a lot by them winning the league outright,” he said. “They are definitely in the spot we wanted to be in.”

Jaguars coach Travis Taylor, who marked his 100th win with Windsor on Jan. 26, had to be a little bit more excited about a hard-fought No. 103 Wednesday night.

“It’s a statement for this program,” he said. “It’s two league titles in three years.”

Windsor ran the table in the NBL in 2015-16 to win the league. The only blemish on this year’s league record with one game to play is the 45-42 home loss to Newman on Jan. 13. Wednesday night avenged that loss.

“No one expected this from us, but we expected this from us,” senior Travis Carlozzi said. Carlozzi finished with four points on the night but in certain stretches seemed to carry the Jaguars’ emotions on his shoulders.

The first time the Jaguars played the Cardinals, senior Riley Smith scored 28 points in a losing effort. On Wednesday he scored fewer — 24 to lead all scorers — but did not seem to care one iota.

When asked what the win means to him, he had one word: “Everything.”

“Cardinal Newman has been our rival forever,” he said. “It’s just a really big win for us.”

Riley Smith had just two points in the first quarter and five in the second, but caught fire in the third with 10 points and eight more in the fourth.

“Big-time players make big plays,” Taylor said.

Perhaps none bigger than less than two minutes to play with the Jaguars up 44-38. Riley Smith dribbled the length of the floor before flipping a pass to his twin brother, Justin, in the key. Justin Smith looked at the rim but instead dished it to his brother, who was camped out behind the arc in the right corner. Three. Jaguars 47, Cardinal Newman 38.

“It’s just a really good feeling to knock down the shot when we needed it,” Riley Smith said.

Justin Smith finished with 12 points — 10 in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a stud,” Taylor said of Justin Smith. “He has been so big for us down the stretch.”

“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into this game,” Justin Smith said. “I expected it to be battle.”

Newman, which had a distinct height disadvantage, pressed relentlessly.

Riley Smith handled a ton of the Jaguars’ ball handling up the court against the press, but said it bothered him only a little.

“It was mostly this floor. It was slippery,” he said.

Bodies were flying all night. Cardinal Newman was called for 18 fouls, Windsor 17.

One of those was a technical on Carlozzi.

With Windsor up 29-24 deep in the third quarter, Carlozzi drew a blocking foul on Newman’s Mason Friesch. There was some jawing under the basket during which Carlozzi pointed to the scoreboard. Whistle.

Newman senior Brad Morato sank both free throws to make it 29-26.

Taylor compared Carlozzi to the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green — a guy who can propel the emotions of an entire team but can lose it every so often.

“He told me to shut my mouth, play the game with poise and get this win,” Carlozzi said. “I’m a hothead, I know it. It’s a game of emotions, let’s put it that way.”

Emotions ran high all night. The atmosphere — and the stakes — demanded it.

“I thought they played really hard in the second half,” Bonfligli said. “I thought they made some really, really difficult shots. It wasn’t our defense.”

“It was our game to win, but they made the plays,” he said. “We didn’t close the deal.”

Riley Smith got his fourth foul with 4:58 to play. Taylor took him out for one sequence and then back in he want.

“He is so good,” Taylor said. “He’s the best player and we trust our seniors to be smart.”

The gamble paid off. Smith, per usual, was crucial down the stretch, handling the ball under pressure and grabbing rebounds on both ends of the floor.

While the Jags are expected to wrap up the league with a win Friday night, next week will perhaps pit these two teams against each other once again. The NBL tournament starts Wednesday.

The fun continues.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”