Manlius Fayetteville-Manlius boys basketball coach Tom Blackford has won plenty of big games in his long coaching career, including a pair of state Class D boys basketball championships during his tenure at Hamilton.
Yet Blackford called the Hornets' 66-54 victory over Nottingham in Friday night's Section III Class AA quarterfinal his most satisfying win yet.
On the surface, Blackford's sentiment appears puzzling, since it was only a sectional quarterfinal between F-M, a no. 3 seed, and Nottingham, a no. 6 seed, on a home court where the Hornets had not lost all year.
But the joy stemmed from what the Hornets had to deal with earlier in the week. Blackford had to suspend seven players, robbing him of depth and forcing him to call up four players from the JV Hornets to have a full roster.
However, F-M's young quartet of stars - sophomore John Schurman, junior Tomer Nesher and freshmen Jake Wittig and T.J. Wheatley - remained on hand. Together, they would prevent Nottingham from getting payback for a 65-44 defeat at the "Hornets' Nest" back on Jan. 20.
Not that it was easy at first. The Bulldogs, who had bashed Watertown 82-39 in Tuesday's opening round, grabbed a 12-4 lead before the game was two and a half minutes old, and would stay in front throughout a fast-paced first quarter.
It took red-hot outside shooting for F-M to climb back. Schurman set the tone with four 3-pointers, and Wittig also connected twice beyond the arc as the Hornets climbed in front, 24-19, early in the second period, only to see Nottingham reclaim the lead late in the half.
If any single shot turned the game around, it was the banked-in 3-pointer Schurman made just before the halftime buzzer. Not only did it trim the Bulldogs' lead to 38-36, it gave F-M energy and momentum that it would not give back.