Both at the beginning, and then at the end, no one in the Section III Class AA ranks would push the Cicero-North Syracuse girls basketball team as much as Utica Proctor.
In an echo of their Dec. 12 clash in the finals of Proctor's season-opening tournament, the Northstars and Raiders squared off again Sunday night in the AA final at Utica Memorial Auditorium, and it took all kinds of hard work for CNS to emerge with a 52-38 victory and its third consecutive sectional championship.
Amid a string of turnovers and other uneven moments, CNS prevailed because it has more contributions from more players than the Raiders - a key difference from the 2009 and 2010 title teams that, at times, leaned so much on Breanna Stewart to make things happen.
"The kids have stepped up," said head coach Eric Smith. "They're a very unselfish group. Given the opportunity, they knocked down some shots, and it gave them some confidence."
Of course, the game's two main attractions were Stewart, committed to go to Connecticut in 2012, and Brianna Kiesel, the Proctor senior headed for Pittsburgh. Neither would disappoint, in their own unique ways.
Kiesel carried her team at times, finishing with 23 points and excelling on the defensive side, especially in the first half as the chaos she caused tailing guards Brittany Paul and Kelsey Mattice led to a rash of CNS turnovers.
"She kept us out of what we wanted to do," said Smith.
The Northstars, who had blown out most of its recent opposition (including Nottingham and CBA in the playoffs), only led 21-16 at the break, and the margin fell to a single point, 21-20, early in the third quarter. But a key adjustment would soon turn things permanently in CNS's favor.
Smith said the change was to have the 6-3 Stewart handle the ball up the court, as she would use her height and advanced skills to keep it away from the prying hands of Kiesel and Proctor's other quick guards.