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MORAGA — They had it.

The Cardinal Newman girls basketball team was minutes — moments, really — away from coming home from St. Mary’s College Saturday with a North Coast Section Division 3 championship banner. But under pressure from a furious press, the Cardinals let it slip away.

The final score was top-ranked Salesian Prep 50, No. 2 Cardinal Newman 46. It was the third time in four years the Salesian Pride of Richmond knocked off the Cardinals in the NCS tournament.

“We had an opportunity to win and that’s all you can really ask for,” coach Monica Mertle said. “The effort was there. As far as our game plan, the focus was there. We just didn’t make the plays to win.”

In a game that was tight for all 32 minutes, the winner wasn’t decided until the closing seconds.

Salesian was up 45-42 with one minute to play when junior Cardinals guard Avery Cargill raced up the court and through Salesian pressure that had forced a series of crucial turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Cargill beat the pressure but was unable to find senior sharpshooter Maiya Flores camped out on the right corner until a split second too late. Instead of lining up for a three, a defender’s hand in her face forced Flores to drive, and the ball was lost in the melee. Salesian’s senior guard Taisia Fleming came up with the loose ball and raced the length of the floor for a layup to make it 47-42.

On any night, you’d want that combination — Cargill to Flores, one of the deadliest three-point shooters around, for a three. But in the bitter end, the things that normally go the Cardinals’ way didn’t.

But it almost was. The game was tied at 11 after one quarter, and the Cardinals went into halftime leading 23-19. After three, Salesian was up 35-33.

And it wasn’t the Pride’s outsized height that beat the Cardinals; it was the press.

“They kept switching up their presses a little bit,” Cargill said. “I think that is what threw us off, having to switch our press breaks back and forth.”

In every position, Salesian had a clear height advantage, but the Cardinals were crafty with their defense and relentless in the rebounding position.

Led by a tremendous effort all night by senior Arie Searcy and her 11 rebounds — nearly doubling her nightly average — the Cardinals were small but played big. Searcy was grabbing rebounds, following her own shot, diving for loose balls and providing the heartbeat for the Cardinals much of the night.

She finished with just three points, but played so much bigger than that number.

“Arie is awesome,” Mertle said. “She has great energy and she is probably one of the toughest kids I’ve coached. Mentally, physically, she’s willing to do anything for her team to be successful.”

Searcy, along with seniors Tal Webb and Aliyah Consani-Baker, put time in guarding the Pride’s 6-feet-5 center, Angel Jackson. Jackson came into Saturday night averaging 14 points per game and put up 17 against the Cardinals, but she wasn’t the difference maker she had the potential to be against the much smaller Newman lineup.

“We knew she was going to get something. We knew she was going to score,” Mertle said. “We didn’t want her to get 30 or 40.”

The team executed well, Mertle said.

“Who we were guarding and how we were guarding them — the girls had to communicate and work together as far as what defense we were in,” she said.

On offense, the Cardinals worked the perimeter, looking for a chance to penetrate and kick it out to shooters. And no one on the floor shot better than the Cardinals’ sophomore guard, Anya Choice.

Choice hit mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper to finish the night with 19 to lead all scorers. Her two threes on the night were both in the fourth and came at key moments.

“Our plan before the game was to focus on our pull-up shots because we knew the big was going to stay in the key,” Choice said. “So when we drove, our main focus was the pull-up.”

The Cardinals picked a tough time to let Salesian’s pressure get to them. They had the answer until the waning minutes of the game. It was all over Choice’s face after the game.

“We definitely need to work on going against pressure like that more often,” she said.

All night, the Cardinals had handled the different looks Salesian threw at them, but with 5:22 to play in the game and Salesian up 39-38, Mertle called a full timeout after another Cardinals turnover.

“We got a little disrupted at times; I think our composure needed to be a little bit better because we can make those plays,” Mertle said.

Out of the timeout, Cargill promptly hit a two-pointer to put the Cardinals back on top — but the back-and-forth leads kept coming.

With three minutes to play, Cargill, listed at 5-foot-6, drove the lane and dropped in a left-handed layup over Salesian’s 6-foot-5 center, Jackson, to pull the Cardinals within one, 43-42. But the Cardinals could not close the deal.

“Honestly, it’s just little things; it came down to one or two possessions,” Cargill said. “You could blame it on something at the end of the game, but really it could have been a turnover in the first quarter or a missed layup in the second quarter.”

Cargill finished with 12 points and Flores had seven, below her average of 14 points per game. Webb, who was in foul trouble much of the night, had two points.

But the Cardinals, who fell to 27-5 overall with the loss, play on. By making it to the section semifinal round, they will compete in the NorCal regional tournament beginning next week.

The seeding selection committee will announce division placements and seeding Sunday, but Mertle expects Cardinal Newman to land in either the open or Division 1 bracket.

But Saturday night, she was still telling her team to enjoy playing for yet another section title.

“We need to appreciate the experience because a lot of players, they never get to play in an environment like that and play on this stage. This is awesome,” she said. “The biggest thing is to use it as a learning experience when we get to NorCals.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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