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IF YOU GO

Who: No. 4 Santa Rosa Junior College versus No. 5 Foothill

What: Mens’ basketball northern region final

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 3

Where: Santa Rosa Junior College

It’s not about 20 games at this point in the Santa Rosa Junior College men’s basketball season — it’s about one.

“We have to win one game to get to Ventura,” Bear Cubs coach Craig McMillan said.

Ventura is the promised land. Ventura is where the Final Eight of the California Community College Athletics Association will be held this year and the Bear Cubs, riding a 20-game win streak and seeded fourth in the northern region, are one game away from heading south. Four teams from Northern California and four teams from Southern California meet in Ventura for the Final Eight tournament beginning March 9.

Standing in the way are the No. 5 Foothill College Owls. Led by the backcourt tandem of freshman Matt McAndrews and sophomore Alex Gil-Fernandez, the Owls are 21-8 overall and went 9-3 in the Coast Conference.

Foothill beat the No. 12 seed Butte Roadrunners 70-68 last week to advance to Saturday's contest at Haehl Pavilion.

The teams’ most recent common opponent, Las Positas of Livermore, could be telling. The Owls lost that matchup 80-77 on Jan. 31. The Bear Cubs easily dispatched Las Positas 81-58 on Feb. 24 to advance to Saturday's contest.

These two squads have met before, but McMillan isn’t putting much stock in that game. It was a lifetime ago.

The Bear Cubs, who were 3-2 when they faced Foothill on Nov. 19 in the Shasta Tournament, won that game 73-56.

That hardly tells the story, McMillan said.

“The game was a lot closer than it looked,” he said. “We were down by one with six minutes to go. They tried to press and foul and we made our free throws.”

And things have changed since then.

Considerably.

The Bear Cubs lost two consecutive contests after they beat Foothill but have not lost since, reeling off 20 wins in a row to win the Big 8 Conference and cruise through early playoff games.

“Both teams have evolved,” McMillan said.

And lineups have changed. Back in November, the Bear Cubs still had the services of 6-foot-6 freshman Markus Gilbert. A broken foot sidelined him after just 11 games.

The Bear Cubs are also without freshman guard Damian Wallace, who injured his knee in the Foothill game and has been sidelined ever since.

Who the Bear Cubs do have is Big 8 Player of the Year Skylar Chavez, a sharpshooter who prepped at Drake High in San Anselmo and is averaging a team-leading 20 points and seven rebounds per game.

Sophomore Sadik Sufi, a Windsor grad who ably stepped in at the post when Gilbert went down, earned first-team All-Conference honors behind his 10 points and six rebounds per game.

Casa Grande grad Cetrick Yeanay was an honorable-mention pick. And it was Yeanay who led the charge the first time the Bear Cubs played the Owls. The guard had a team-leading 22 points, while Chavez put up 16.

The Owls were paced that night by sophomore Gil-Fernandez’s 15 points and Chris Russell and his 10 points.

McMillan said Foothill’s backcourt is dangerous.

“They are penetrators off the dribble,” he said. “We are going to have to play good one-on-one defense.”

IF YOU GO

Who: No. 4 Santa Rosa Junior College versus No. 5 Foothill

What: Mens’ basketball northern region final

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, March 3

Where: Santa Rosa Junior College

And on offense, patience is the key, he said.

“We’ll have to make that extra pass,” he said. “We are going to have to work hard to get a good shot.”

But with this Bear Cubs squad, no assignment seems too tough.

“You know what? This team — I have never had a team that has come through in as many tough situations as this team has,” he said. “Some games we were down late and guys have made plays and made free throws and got stops. We have had a really gritty group of guys.

“We have found a way,” he said.

And it’s not always the same guy who steps up to save the day or get it done.

“It’s not just the guys that score, it’s the guys shutting down the other team,” he said. “We have 10 guys on our roster and every one of them has helped us win games.”

Twenty-four times the Bear Cubs have found a way to win. They have only fallen short four times. But fall now and it’s over.

McMillan said his team isn’t planning on ending this season just yet.

McMillan said there are 93 basketball programs in the hunt at the beginning of the season. It’s not easy to get to this game they will play Saturday.

But it might be even harder to hang it up.

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

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