Mar 03, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
Just the fact that the Henninger boys basketball team is in possession of its first Section III Class AA championship since 2004 was reason enough to be proud.
But it was how the Black Knights pulled it off that made it feel even better.
Henninger thwarted Utica Proctor’s dreams of a third consecutive sectional title in an impressive 57-41 decision over the Raiders rendered Sunday afternoon at Manley Field House.
Long before it started, said Henninger head coach Erik Saroney, he could sense that his players were set to end a six-game skid to Proctor that included last year’s Class AA final at Manley.
“I’ve never gone into a big game feeling better about our chances,” he said. “Our kids were very loose and confident. They wanted it so much.”
Having wanted it, Henninger went out and took it by taking the lessons learned in all those defeats to Proctor and applying them. Ben Cronin, Glenn Williams and Brian Wilson formed an intimidating presence in the middle, while guard Kihary Blue and Quantae Elijah mixed flawless defensive execution with well-timed outside shots that kept the Raiders from a late rally.
When they first met this season Jan. 8 in Utica, everything went wrong for the Black Knights. Cronin, a 7-1 senior center going to the University of Michigan, got into early foul trouble and saw his minutes limited. At the same time, forward Osvaldo Lara broke his arm, causing him to miss the rest of the regular season, and the visitors could not make an outside shot, either.
The rematch, on Jan. 22 atHenninger, caused even more frustration. Down by double digits late in the fourth quarter, the Black Knights made a furioius rally to take the lead with a minute left, only to see Deandre Preaster hit a big jump shot and crucial free throws in the final minute to help Proctor prevail again.
These were the only two blemishes in Henninger’s 20-2 season. At Manley, Cronin and his teammates would get one more shot at Proctor — and would do so with Lara back on the floor, wearing a cast to protect that broken arm.
Following an early exchange of baskets, the Black Knights took the lead for good in the last minute of the first quarter, breaking an 8-8 tie, and would never let Proctor take it back.
Sticking to man-to-man defense in the first half, Henninger had Blue and Elijah smother and frustrate the Raiders’ guards, taking away any outside shots and forcing the Raiders to go to Preaster more often.
Saroney said the way Blue and Elijah stepped up their games provided a big key to this championship run.
“It’s been an improvement all year,” he said. “I’ve seen them progressively get better.”
Once that was done, Saroney switched to a zone, to make sure that Preaster and fellow forward Almir Gredelj never got many easy looks. With Cronin as the anchor, Williams and Lara took turns defending the paint and closing off possible passing routes.
All this was done in a methodical and effective way. Henninger closed out the first half on a 15-4 run to build its advantage to 30-17.
And from there, the second half turned into a long chase. Proctor would, on occasion, inch closer, but every time it did, Blue or Elijah would hit a long-range 3-pointer and the Black Knights would retain control. At one point in the fourth quarter, the lead grew to 20 before Henninger backed off.
Offensively, Henninger had near-perfect offensive balance. Blue led with 16 points, including a trio of 3-pointers, as Williams gained 13 points and eight rebounds. Eljiah got 12 points as Cronin gained 10 points and 16 rebounds.
Henninger now cast its eyes on Saturday’s Class AA regional final, to be played Saturday at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy against the Section II champions. A win there, and the Black Knights will be in next weekend’s state final four in Glens Falls, where it claimed a state championship in 2002.
“With this group (of players), I’m not afraid of anyone,” said Saroney.