A notorious freewheeling team, Menlo simply couldn’t muster any momentum in the half-court set as the Knights fell 47-35 to Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa Tuesday in the opening round of the Northern California Division IV tournament.
The Knights have relied on follows off offensive rebounds all season long, but the Cardinals proved too big and too strong on the inside to allow them many second chances. Cardinal Newman out-rebounded Menlo 43-31 throughout the contest, including 23-15 in the second half.
“We try to emphasize rebounding,” Cardinal Newman head coach Monica Mertle said. “We’ve got a lot of height so we try to use it. But a lot of rebounding is just about hustle.”
The Cardinals’ towering freshman tandem of 6-2 power forward Hailey Vice-Neat and 6-4 center Lauren Walker pulled down 10 and eight rebounds, respectively, as Cardinal Newman overcame Menlo’s 21-20 halftime lead to run away with it in the second half.
“It was definitely hard because they were such big girls,” Menlo sophomore McKenzie Duffner said. “We were really pressured to get a set offense going. That really isn’t our strong suit. We’re really a lot better in transition and they kind of shut us down more there.”
Menlo came out aggressive from the opening tip-off with the full-court press and even managed two early steals. But Cardinal Newman Julia Bertolero converted a pair of three-point plays — one off a bucket and a free throw and the second on a rainbow 3 — to stake her squad to a 12-10 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
At the start of the second quarter, Menlo quickly took the lead. After senior forward Donya Dehnad fed Duffner under the hoop for a quick layup to tie it 12-12, Dehnad hit a free throw on the following possession to give Menlo a 13-12 lead.
The lead changed seven times in the second quarter, however, with Menlo freshman Sam Erisman twice giving the Knights the lead within a 30-second span on back-to-back 3s. Try as they might, however, the Knights couldn’t pull away and took just a 21-20 lead into the half.
Cardinal Newman went on a 5-0 run to open the second half and never again trailed in the game. Cardinals junior Kylie Kiech responded with a pair of 3s, as the entire Menlo team managed just six points throughout the quarter while Cardinal Newman played to the buzzer and got rewarded as Bertolero banked a jumper off the glass at the buzzer, giving the Cardinals a 37-27 lead heading into the final eight minutes.
In the fourth quarter, Menlo played fast and frantic but to no avail. The Knights’ aggressive style culminated in a flurry of fouls. As a result, both Duffner and Dehnad fouled out in the closing minute with Menlo never getting closer than seven points.
Kiech and Erisman each tabbed a game-high 16 points.
With the loss, Menlo closes out an epic run as Central Coast Section Division IV champs for the sixth time in program history.
“We were all really excited (about the CCS championship),” Duffner said. “A lot of people didn’t think we’d get that far and it was nice to just prove them wrong. So everyone was extremely happy. It showed us how our hard work really paid off.”
And amazingly, the Knights will get nearly its entire squad back next season, as Dehnad will be the only senior lost to graduation.
“I think we’re going to keep building as a team,” Duffner said. “We were pretty good this year, and I think since we have so much longer we can keep working as a team in the offseason and just come back even stronger.”
With the win, Cardinal Newman advances to the second round of the Nor Cal tourney. It is just the third year for girls’ basketball at Cardinal Newman as the Santa Rosa-based school didn’t become a co-ed school until 2012.
“I think Menlo did a really good job of switching up their defenses, putting pressure on us, and I can’t say I really felt comfortable at any point,” Mertle said. “I think Menlo did a really good job and we just so happened to come out on top of this one.”