A state final four appearance for the Liverpool boys basketball team, the first in 26 years, ended two wins short of the championship summit.
Fairport proved too good in all faces of the game during Saturday’s state Class AA semifinal at Binghamton’s Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, essentially borrowing the Warriors’ recent winning formula – start fast, don’t look back – to prevail by a 69-52 margin.
“They (Fairport) jumped on us,” said Liverpool head coach Ryan Blackwell. “We were a bit out of sync. We settled down and found some openings, but it proved too late.”
As the Section V champions, Fairport had only lost once all season. It had size all over its lineup, and was coached by Scott Fitch – who once played against Blackwell when the two were high school stars in the Rochester area in the mid-1990s.
Liverpool, in short, needed performances good as it displayed throughout the post-season to reach the state final – and ideally, the kind of starts that had put away its two previous opponents, Henninger (in the sectional final) and Bethlehem (in the regional final).
That didn’t happen. Instead, Fairport’s ball pressure in the paint, working out of a zone defense that forced the ball outside to the perimeter, caused the Warriors to turn it over six times and not get on the board for more than four minutes, by which point it already trailed 11-0.
Whether it was 6-foot-7 center Ryan Algier easily working his way to six points, or point guard Dan Masino turning on his pivot foot to lose a defender before hitting an open jumper, the Red Raiders got whatever it wanted streaking out to a 15-2 lead.
“We came out with great energy and great poise,” said Fitch.
Gradually, the Warriors tried to work its way back, aided by 3-point shooting as Noah Issakainen twice converted beyond the arc. Not only did Fairport answer it, though, with its own string of outside shots, it also sent Charles Pride and Nahjier Johnson to the bench, each of them saddled with foul trouble.
Cam Keeley took over for the Red Raiders late in the half. He had 10 points during the second quarter to add to the six he had in the opening period. Keeley’s four 3-pointers, including one right before the halftime horn, pushed the Warriors into a 36-20 deficit at the break.
Any hope at recovery depended on Liverpool cutting down on turnovers and ramping up the defense that was so formidable throughout the post-season.
Neither happened in the third quarter, for though the Warriors’ offense improved with Pride and Johnson both on the court, Fairport kept answering, especially Masino, who scored nine of his 16 points in that frame and effectively ran the Red Raiders’ attack all game.
“We run things through (Masino),” said Fitch. “He’s never out of control, and our team feeds off that (poise).”
Down 52-35 going to the final period, the Warriors turned to Johnson, who scored 10 of his team-high 15 points in the fourth quarter. But Keeley returned to control the paint and run his total to 19 points, helping clinch Fairport’s spot in Sunday’s state final, where it would fall to Mount Vernon (Section I) 59-48.
Great as the disappointment the Warriors may have felt, Blackwell said that it can’t erase the milestones Liverpool achieved this winter, overcoming an 0-3 start to end an 18-year sectional championship drought and reach the state final four for the first time since 1991.
“We’ve had a great season,” said Blackwell. “There’s nothing to be down about.”