Mar 06, 2007 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Scattered across the gym floor at Onondaga Community College Saturday night, the celebration had already begun for the Liverpool girls basketball team. Players, coaches, parents and students mingled, laughed, hugged and engaged in a state of general bliss, for good reason.
After an 11-year wait, the Warriors were Section III champions again.
And it got that title in the most satisfying way possible, knocking off no. 1 seed Oswego 52-40 in the Class AA final with a blend of power, passion and poise the Buccaneers simply could not handle.
“It’s an honor to bring this program back to the top,” said senior guard Colleen Maloney.
“I’m so happy for these kids,” said head coach Mike Olley. “They’ve played (basketball) together since third grade and worked so hard for this.”
Since that last title in 1996, Liverpool has been engaged in a long quest to return to the top. Every year, it seemed, the Warriors would contend and go deep into the sectional playoffs, only to fall one or two steps short of the summit.
And it happened again in 2006, when Oswego knocked out Liverpool in the AA semifinals. Ever since then, said Olley, the team had been dead-set on getting back to this level — and wanting badly to gain revenge on the Bucs.
In the meantime, the two sides got together on Dec. 22, with Oswego prevailing again 45-42. Olley said his players held up well, with the exception of a poor second quarter, something that didn’t happen in the rematch.
“We played a full 32 minutes this time,” said junior guard Tyler Ash.
A packed house at OCC watched Liverpool immediately take charge. Maloney, the team’s leading scorer, was shut out in the first quarter, but Ash, Lauren Pluchino, Ashleigh Bowers, Sharon Dennis and Kristin Murrock made up for it, each of them scoring as the Warriors built a 14-6 lead by the end of the first quarter.
The fun continued in the second period. Aggressive and fearless, Liverpool took the game to the Bucs and drew fouls. What’s more, they converted, hitting on all 12 of its free-throw attempts in the first half and leading by as much as 14 before taking a 29-19 edge to the break.
This high level of play continued into the third quarter. With a 9-0 run, the Warriors’ lead grew to 38-21, and its defense was managing to clog up Oswego’s potent front line and take away the Bucs’ perimeter game at the same time.
“We came in intense and played tough defense all night,” said Maloney.
However, Oswego would not surrender easily. Late in that period, the Bucs began an 11-0 spurt of its own to get back into it, even pulling within five, 43-38, late in the fourth quarter.
Though Liverpool fans feared a total reversal, Olley said he and his players were not as worried.
“I had no fear that it was getting away,” he said. “When Oswego made their run, I knew our kids were going to respond and squash it, and they did.”
Indeed, the Warriors would weather the rally as Ash, Maloney and Bowers all sank crucial free throws down the stretch to seal Liverpool’s sectional title.
Ash, in particular, hurt Oswego’s defense, as the 6-2 guard poured in 18 points. Maloney finished with 10 points, while Pluchino earned nine points, Bowers got all six of her points at the foul line, and Dennis earned five points.
Defensively, Liverpool had some difficulty with Cari Reed (18 points), but forwards like Dennis, Bowers and Murrock did a superb job containing fellow forwards Corrin Conroy and Nikki Carroll, holding them to a combined nine points.
“We just didn’t give them second or third chances (inside),” said Olley.
Not content with a sectional title, the Warriors will go after more on Saturday at 3 p.m., when it meets Section II champion Colonie in the Class AA regional final at Jamesville-DeWitt. The Garnet Raiders are 22-1 and present a big challenge as Liverpool looks to advance to next weekend’s state final four in Troy.