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LAKEPORT — The return to the CIF North Coast Section Division 5 playoffs was short-lived for the St. Helena High boys basketball team.

The 14th-seeded Saints fell 58-39 at No. 3 seed Clear Lake in a first-round game between North Central League I opponents Wednesday night.

St. Helena worked until the final buzzer, but the Cardinals opened the third quarter with a 16-4 run that ended any chance for an upset.

“The kids played their hearts out,” St. Helena head coach Jim Gamble said. “Clear Lake is a very talented and athletic team. There was a reason they were 24-2 went 14-0 in league and were the No. 3 seed in Division 5. They are a really skilled basketball team. We had the jitters early and we got close in the second quarter, but it wasn’t enough.”

St. Helena (13-13) hung tough in the first quarter, as each side struggled to find its shot. There was no scoring for the first three minutes of the game.

As they had been most of the season, the Saints were at a height and weight disadvantage. The largest player on their roster is Connor Virnig, a 6-foot-3 sophomore.

The Cardinals are a load to deal with, meanwhile, with 6-foot-3, 330-pound TJ Talamoni-Marcks and 6-foot-6 NCL I Most Valuable Player Jaron Mertle roaming the paint.

Talamoni-Marcks was a force in the first half for Clear Lake (25-2), as the senior bullied his way to a near double-double. The Cardinals picked up more rebounds in the first half than the Saints did the whole game, finishing 58-27 advantage on the boards.

“We were at physiological disadvantage every single game, but our kids just battled,” Gamble said. “You watch Nick Jeworowski and Caleb Granados inside just banging it out with bigger players even if they have 6 inches and 100 pounds on them. It is just so hard when you are at such a large size disadvantage in height and in weight.”

Granados led the Saints with 11 points, while Christian Iano had six points and two rebounds and Jeworowski added five points.

The hosts grabbed a 17-7 lead after the first quarter with a late burst in the frame that gave them their 10-point lead. Darius Ford was clutch for the Cardinals all evening, as the junior guard finished with a game-high 19 points.

The Saints narrowed the Cardinals’ advantage to seven points just before the halftime break. But Rodrigo Lupercio answered with a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to put the Cardinals back up by 10 at halftime. The 700-seat gymnasium, nearly filled to capacity, went berserk after the shot.

Mertle took over the workload for Talamoni-Marcks in the second half. The junior showed why he has been such a trouble to deal with all this season, scoring 11 points and pulling down a game-high 18 rebounds. The Cardinals cruised for most of the second half, and Mertle only played a couple minutes in the final quarter.

“The third quarter has been our bugaboo this season. They weren’t shooting well, but their offensive rebounding in the third and fourth quarters killed us,” Gamble said. “They had so many second, third and fourth chances for points. They’re big, they’re long, and we just had a tough time. Our kids tried hard, but it seemed like every offensive rebound was going their way.”

The Saints will lose two seniors from their strong, young group in Iano and Jeworowski, who were key parts of the team and strong mentors. Key returners should be juniors Collin Darrall, Jonathan Gamble, Caleb Jeske and Jake Mendes and sophomore Fawad Muhammad.

“I can’t say enough about Nick and Christian this season,” Coach Gamble said. “They haven’t had much success at St. Helena High School. But heading into their season year as the lone two seniors, they embraced the sophomore and juniors on the varsity team.

“They played huge leadership roles for the team and they inspired their teammates with just their passion and enthusiasm for the game, the way they play with so much heart and so much desire. The other kids just feed off that. Without their leadership we wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs.”

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