East Syracuse Far too often in the nine-year history of the Vince Celi Memorial Tournament, the team that Celi once coached at East Syracuse-Minoa has watched someone else snag the top spot.
Not this year, though, as the Spartans remained undefeated and moved to 7-0 by knocking off Auburn 71-53 in Wednesday afternoon's tournament final.
It looked, on paper, to be perhaps the biggest challenge to ESM's perfect march so far. Auburn was 3-3, but the Maroons were on a three-game win streak following an 0-3 start where it lost to Rush-Henrietta, Fayetteville-Manlius and Corcoran (all Class AA teams) by a combined 10 points.
And the first half appeared to confirm those fears. The teams traded the lead throughout an 18-18 first quarter, but led by Kareef Rufus, who had 10 points in the second quarter, Auburn gained a 36-30 edge.
No one realized it at the time, but it was Dan MacDougall's 3-pointer in the last minute of the half that turned the game around. Suddenly, ESM was within three, 36-33, at the break, and the energy gained from that trey carried over, especilally on the defensive side.
Frustrated, and unable to find anything open, Auburn only managed two field goals in the entire third quarter and its top player, Mike Granato, had just two points the entire second half.
Meanwhile, guards Jeff McDuffie and Bobby Campese kept hitting crucial baskets in a 20-5 spurt, and when Campese's runner beat the buzzer, the Spartans took a 50-41 lead to the fourth quarter. Auburn never got closer than eight points again.
McDuffie, named the tournament MVP, and Campese led with 14 points apiece. In all, five ESM players reached double figures as Casey Sullivan managed 13 points, Keith Caiello got 12 points and Brandon Russell managed 10 points. Campese and Sullivan joined McDuffie on the All-Tournament team.