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Jim Gamble

First-year St. Helena head boys varsity coach Jim Gamble instructs his team from the sidelines during a game at St. Helena High School.

Nearly three weeks after its previous game, the St. Helena boys basketball team closes its preseason by going 1-2 in the Vern Piver Holiday Classic at Fort Bragg this weekend.

The Saints will take a 5-6 record into Friday night’s North Central League I opener against visiting Middletown (6-4).

The weekend on the coast held a bit of everything for St. Helena. The Saints were blown out by Novato in their first round game, 56-26, blasted league foe Kelseyville, 69-36, and then dropped a close, competitive game to tournament host Fort Bragg, 58-48, on Saturday to cap the tournament.

“It was three very different games but it was a great way to get us ready for league season,” St. Helena head coach Jim Gamble said Sunday.

Senior forward Christian Iano played some of his basketball of the year for the Saints, scoring 39 points with seven 3-pointers in the three games to earn All-Tournament honors.

While the weekend was a good tune-up for the Saints, it started off on an ominous note.

Novato, a Division 3 school, jumped all over St. Helena from the opening tip. The Hornets led 32-12 at halftime and before coasting to the 30-point victory.

Leading the Saints were junior Collin Darrall and sophomore Fawad Muhammad, with six points each.

Gamble compared Novato’s play to that of the Golden State Warriors with how they shared the ball, passed up good shots for great ones, and railed three after three with ease.

“Their defensive pressure just kept us off balance offensively the entire game,” he said. “And their long-range shooting was maybe some of the best shooting I’ve seen in a long time. They play a beautiful brand of basketball.”

The Saints may have picked up a thing or two from that game, however, because they rallied on Friday with a thoroughly dominating effort against Kelseyville in an early morning game.

St. Helena, led by Iano’s 23 points with five 3-pointers, hit 13 threes as a team and carried a 36-14 lead into halftime.

The Knights, the reigning North Central League I champs, are in a rebuilding year. Even with that in mind, Gamble was somewhat surprised by the lopsided outcome.

“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” he said. “But it’s so much easier to coach when the shots are going in. We just put a lot of full-court pressure on and I think we caught them by surprise.”

Darrall added 14 points and hit four 3-pointers for the Saints.

They ended the weekend in a tightly contested consolation championship game against host Fort Bragg. The Timberwolves have been an upstart team this year following a 5-21 season, and they improved to 9-4 on the season with a 58-48 win over the Saints.

St. Helena trailed by only two heading into the fourth quarter. But they struggled to stop 6-foot-4, 210-pound forward Garrett James, who scored six of his game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter. The Saints dealt with foul trouble all game, which made them wary of being too physical with the bruising post player.

For the game, Fort Bragg was 19-for-37 from the free-throw line while the Saints were just 3-for-4.

“The kids played really hard but we had some crucial turnovers down the stretch that hurt us and they were able to pound the ball inside to their big kid in the middle,” Gamble said. “He’s not huge but he was strong and we just had a tough time containing him. He was the difference in the fourth quarter.”

Iano paced the Saints with 14 points while fellow senior Nick Jeworowski scored 10.

The Saints have dropped four of their last five, but they aren’t going into league play blind. They’ve played three league opponents in their last four games and have gone 1-2 against them. They played two alone this past weekend in Kelseyville and Fort Bragg, and faced Cloverdale earlier in December.

Those games gave Gamble a better understanding of how the Saints stack up in league this season.

“We’re so young and so inexperienced with only two seniors on the team, but after seeing these league teams and going over film, I think we can be competitive with any of the teams in league on any given night,” Gamble said. “We’re going to have our nights when we lay an egg and not play as well as we’re capable of playing, but we’re also going to have nights where we’re going to play extremely well.

“I think we can beat any of the teams on any given night. It’s going to be a fun, exciting season.”

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Sports Reporter