Watching four terrific seniors walk down the aisle last June was rough enough. Then the transfer winds started blowing and, swoosh, two important underclassmen disappeared.

Brandon Savage almost had to wonder, "Do I need breath mints?"

Nope. But he did need to have his confidence restored, with reference to the fact that his senior basketball season at Cardinal Dougherty High could indeed be respectable, and what that took was a whole bunch of new guys to grow up fast and somehow play like oldheads.

Mission accomplished. At least last night.

In sweltering heat, which resulted in a guy being summoned to mop up every time bodies hit the floor in the late going, the visiting Cardinals surprised North Catholic, 59-55, in a Catholic League Northern Division opener that crackled with intensity.

The Falcons are some folks' favorite to capture the regular-season crown. As for the Cardinals, well, it appears there's a fine line between regrouping and reloading.

"I did wonder how things were going to be this year," Savage said. "We lost a lot. You have that feeling like you're back on your heels. But as practices and then the games went on, I felt good. We were doing better mentally and physically, and it led to something nice like this.

"Guys that weren't expected to get minutes are giving us great effort."

Savage, a lefty who goes 6-5, 205, is listed as the center. So the fact that he grabbed 13 rebounds was no surprise.

This was: Over the last 4 minutes, as Dougherty operated mostly out of a make-'em-chase offense, there was Savage, often directing traffic way out by midcourt.

"That was coach [Mark] Heimerdinger's plan," Savage said. "He knew North would come after us with aggressive trapping. He wanted a bigger body out there to help. Not only to stand up to their traps but to be able to see over guys and make passes."

Savage dished two assists down the stretch. Both came on passes, from far out front, to guys that North somehow allowed to sprint mostly unaccompanied to the basket area. Zaahir Allen's layup made it 48-46; Sean Williams' made it 57-54.

Brandon, you're a 6-5 center. Pesky guys are swarming around you. You're a Zip code away from the basket . . .

He's also a former guard.

"As a freshman, I was a point guard," he said, smiling. "I was about 5-9 then. But then I had about a 5-inch growth spurt going into sophomore year and I gradually moved my way to the center position. But still, I feel comfortable making passes."

Early, all he could do was wince. Dougherty was falling like a house of cards at the outset. While falling behind 16-5, the best of the Redbirds' wild passes sailed into the third row. The worst thudded against the rafters.

"We definitely looked nervous," Savage said. "It's not easy playing your first league game with an inexperienced team in this little place. Even in our last few games we've been doing that. Spotting teams leads of 7-0, 10-0 . . . We were so worried about not letting that happen again, we did. We were too amped.

"We talked to each other. The coaches talked to us. We had to calm down. We played with better control, yet we still went at them hard."

Allen, a talented wing guard, shook off the disappointment of missing his first five shots to finish with 22 points, in addition to seven rebounds, three assists and even three blocks. Sean Williams (13) and Jahkeem Bogans (12) also scored in double figures. Isiah Mason added five apiece of boards and assists.

Savage scored just five points, but one was a clinching free throw, one the back end of a double-bonus, with 4.7 seconds left.

To backtrack, North's Woody Redding stepped on the sideline in front of North's bench just before he would have launched a trey in an attempt to create a tie at 58-58. Prior to that, Allen passed to Williams for an easy basket after Dougherty used 9.9 seconds (at least) to get the ball past halfcourt.

North, which called upon 11 players even before the first quarter ended (and 12 in all), received 12 points from Velton Jones and 11 from Mike Terry.

Savage, who lives in West Oak Lane, has received nibbles from Long Island University and East Stroudsburg. He's a B student with a career interest to be determined.

This is already known: The winter won't be a washout.

Who would have known? *