Mar 17, 2008 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
When the Jamesville-DeWitt boys basketball team hit the court last Nov. 30 to begin the 2007-08 season, the usual amount of high expectations surrounded them. Given the talent it possessed, anything less than championship glory for the Red Rams would be seen as a letdown.
Three and a half months later, that glory was attained in Glens Falls, a third state title to go with those won by the Bernard Blunt-led crew of 1990 and the undefeated champs of 2004, culminating Sunday with a 78-54 victory over East Hampton.
Thus, J-D pulled off the toughest possible thing in sports — living up to one’s reputation, and doing so with a style and grace that left everyone marveling.
It helped, too, that the Rams came into this season quite hungry, a direct byproduct of what had taken place in the three years since that memorable 2004 run to the state and Federation titles.
Each of those seasons, J-D came in as heavy favorites in the Section III and state Class A ranks, even rising to the top of the state rankings. But it never could get out of the sectional playoffs, ousted by Mexico in 2005, Indian River in 2006 and New Hartford in 2007.
What happened in 2006-07 was particularly frustrating. All was going fine until the Rams’ star sophomore guard, Brandon Triche, tore his right ACL during the CBA Holiday Classic. He missed the rest of the season and would need close to 15 months to get back to full speed.
However, Triche was ready to play (with a knee brace) when practice started in November. The best part was that, despite his immense talent, Triche didn’t have to carry the full load.
J-D possessed a lethal combination of size, speed, experience and depth that made Triche just one strong part of a smooth-running basketball machine.
Up front, senior Nick Pascale brought a 6-10 frame and plenty of toughness, traits that helped him earn a scholarship to attend Colgate University next fall. He became even more effective after 6-7 senior Marcus Williams entered the starting lineup at mid-season, with Mitchell Howe coming off the bench at key times when Pascale or Williams needed a breather.
As Triche ran the show in the backcourt, versatile swing players Mickey Davis and Alshwan Hymes each accepted their roles, too. Davis was a smooth and steady scorer, while Hymes became even more lethal after giving up his starting spot. As a sixth man, Hymes brought energy and an ability to take over a game, something that proved handy, especially in the post-season.
And whenever a big shot was needed, Greg Stern would deliver. Stern’s 3-pointers prompted a “Stern-O-Matic!” chant from the J-D student section at each game.
Defensively, everyone at J-D could deliver, too. Whether it was normal man-to-man pressure or the occasional zone, the Rams handled whatever an opponent threw at them, and when it was needed, the team’s full-court press produced led to turnovers and big scoring spurts.
With all this talent assembled, head coach Bob McKenney had the exact opposite dilemma than he faced in 2004. Back then, the Red Rams had some star power (Andy Rautins would end up at Syracuse University), but also an extra ingredient of great chemistry that allowed it to rise above its talent level and play at a higher level when it was needed.
Here, the talent level wasn’t a problem at all for McKenney. It was just a matter of keeping all the stars happy and making them buy into a winning concept — something that didn’t prove difficult at all, given how hungry everyone was for a championship.
All went fine at the start, as the Rams again won its annual Tip-Off Tournament, then achieved a huge prize Dec. 8 when it beat Section II power Bishop Maginn in Glens Falls. That same Maginn team would later win the state Class AA championship.
Back home two weeks later, the Rams took a loss to CBA. Then came a holiday tournament in White Plains where, on Dec. 28, J-D gave three-time defending state Class A champion Peekskill a genuine scare before falling, 63-60. Motivated by that defeat, J-D vowed to get payback if they met Peekskill again — and would not lose the rest of the way.
Back home, the only real scare the rest of the regular season came Jan. 5, at Bishop Ludden, where it took a rebound basket by Hymes in the final seconds to beat the Gaelic Knights. Otherwise, it got to the sectional Class A playoffs at 18-2, riding a nine-game win streak.
Utica-Notre Dame, then Fowler, fell in the sectional tournament, leading J-D back to Manley Field House for a Class A final against New Hartford, the very team that had knocked the Red Rams (without Triche) out a season ago on that same court in the semifinal round.
And it proved scary here, too, as J-D trailed much of the game and carried a 35-35 tie to the fourth quarter before Hymes, with five big points, launched a run that led to a 56-44 victory, a Class A banner — and immense relief.
When that was done, McKenney said the tough part was over, that his team could now relax and play at the kind of tempo it wanted against opponents with similar styles. As it turned out, he was right on the mark.
In Troy for the Class A regional final March 8, J-D absolutely destroyed Albany’s Bishop Gibbons, 74-34, setting up the long-awaited rematch with Peekskill in Glens Falls. There, J-D got SU recruit Mookie Jones into foul trouble and took over in a blinding 32-point third-quarter onslaught, moving the Rams one step closer to the summit.
A day later, that summit was attained against East Hampton in a game that featured so many of the Red Rams’ positive traits.
Triche ran the show with grace and cool style. Pascale, with solid help from Williams and Howe, dominated on the glass. Davis poured in a steady variety of shots, while Hymes brought unstoppable energy in his sixth-man role. Stern hit timely 3-pointers, and the whole team played solid defense, especially in that closing 21-4 run in the last five minutes after East Hampton threatened to make it close.
Next weekend, J-D will go after the Federation championship in Glens Falls. Whatever happens there, though, it has a state Class A championship safely in its grasp, something that might have been expected — but was still quite wonderful to savor.