DANVILLE — There was 2:56 left in the first quarter and San Ramon Valley looked like it was trying to start a cold engine in itself after an 11-day layoff.
The host Wolves led Cardinal Newman 8-7 in a North Coast Section girls open division semifinal, and coach John Cristiano looked over to senior guard Anneka Lupinek standing at midcourt and asked, “Are you having fun? Show me your cute face!
Lupinek forced a smile – and moments later hit a three-point shot.
The game remained a battle for second-seeded San Ramon Valley in the second half, where a 20-1 stretch saw a 49-41 win and a berth in the NCS open title game against Carondelet, a 50-48 winner from Salesian in the other semifinal.
The Wolves improved to 26-3 and showed the effect of the dismissal early on thanks to a first-round bye and then getting on track. Cardinal Newman, 23-7 awaits his assignment in the Northern California playoffs.
San Ramon Valley had not played since victory over Monte Vista in the final East Bay Athletic League game on February 11.
“You could see it in our game,” Cristiano said. “We were rusty coming out of the gate tonight. We didn’t move well, we didn’t shoot well. We were a bit out of line. But we got our wind in the second half and the third quarter was more about who we are and how we play.”
Junior post Sofia Bowes led San Ramon Valley with 14 points, with point guard Sierra Chambers adding 12 and Amanda Kerner adding 11. Abbie Mullins and Janelle Pena each had 11 for the Cardinals.
Neither team was at its best until San Ramon Valley got going in the second half. In some ways they were mirror images of each other. Cardinal Newman was undefeated and rarely challenged in his Bay Valley League games as the Wolves ran rough through the EBAL with only crosstown rival Monte Vista offering a serious challenge.
The Cardinals beat Heritage 59-42 in their opener, as San Ramon Valley bided its time.
That time came after Pena scored in for a 30-24 Cardinal Newman lead with 3:43 left in the third quarter. The Cardinals would not score a field goal in more than nine minutes and get their lone points on the line, as the Wolves warmed up.
The surge began for San Ramon Valley as Kerner hit a 3-point shot, then another shot from a Bowes post feed. Suddenly it was 30-30.
The Wolves then got back-to-back basket from Bowes, Cardinal Newman countered with a single free throw and Kerner buried her third trey of the quarter to give San Ramon Valley a 38–31 lead at the end of the quarter.
In the fourth quarter, Avery Knapp scored on a drive, Chambers followed her own miss for a score, and Tera Chen drove to the basket for a 44–31 lead with 4:35 left to play.
With both teams very stingy on defense, it was too big of a lead for Cardinal Newman to win.
“At this point you don’t really know, but I did realize we were doing a good job,” said Kerner.
Kerner admitted that the firing, coupled with Cardinal Newman’s defensive intensity, took its toll early on.
“I think the speed of the game got us in the first half, but I also think we had 11 days to prepare for it and we knew what was coming,” said Kerner. “We knew they were going to make some runs. We play more or less the same – transition and a lot of drive and kick – so we knew it was going to be difficult and they played great in defence.
Cristiano is proud to have a close-knit team from the region that has grown close.
“We open the door and we work with everyone who shows up,” said Cristiano. “We don’t have Division I players. We have closed borders, so I always say to them: you compete against these teams, just go and have fun. That’s always been kind of our mantra. If it turns out our way, we live to play another day, if not, we had a great time and you did your best.”
Cardinal Newman didn’t shoot well, but a lot of that had to do with the defense of San Ramon Valley.
“We held Cardinal Newman to 41 points? They are a great team,” said Cristiano. “I’m so proud of these girls.”