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The Blackwell Blog

Five for the final four

Just 40 basketball teams make it to the climactic weekend of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships, better known as the state final four.

For Section III, it proved a 50-50 proposition. Ten teams went into regional play, and five are still going, and for the most part, they've grown used to playing deep into March.

Cicero-North Syracuse's girls, in particular, have made the trip to Troy a routine affair. Two state Class AA titles in tow, they're after the three-peat, having survived a tense regional final with Albany through making 14 straight free throws in the fourth quarter at SRC Arena.

Steeled by all the big games they've played in, Abbey Timpano, Sarah Bowles, Cara Gannett and company now face an incredibly difficult slate at Hudson Valley Community College. Friday's night semifinal is a reunion with a Gates-Chili side that smacked the Northstars 61-33 in the season opener Dec. 8. Granted, C-NS is a lot better now, but to make up 28 points on a team of Gates-Chili's quality is asking a lot.

And even if the Northstars somehow pull that off, look what could await in the final - Ossining, and Soniya Chong, who is due to join Breanna Stewart at UConn next fall. Yes, it's the same Chong C-NS shut down in last year's state semis, but she's after payback, albeit in a nice way. Chong dropped 41 points on Monroe-Woodbury in the regional finals, and the M-W players took pictures with her afterward. Ossining meets Sachem East in the first state semifinal.

Oriskany is the other Section III girls basketball team still going. What made the Redskins' tough 51-46 regional victory over Franklin at Oneonta State so sweet was that Franklin was bent on shutting down Christina Gradziadei, for good reason. And it still didn't work.

Stepping out of Gradziadei's shadow, Madison Zizzi, Brandi Zizzi, Shannon VanShufflin and Jordan Sahl all had eight or more points, so Oriskany pulled through despite Gradziadei getting held to six points, though she did clean up on the glass with 13 rebounds.

Now, morning basketball! Bright and early at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, Oriskany plays its state semifinal against Livingston Manor, from Section IX. Controversially, Livingston did not even have to play a regional game to get its final four berth, so you've got to like the Redskins' chances to get to a title game Sunday against Batavia-Notre Dame or Fort Edward.

The other sectional champions fell just short in regional play. J-D, in Class A, fell to Troy 49-43, a six-point defeat - the exact same margin by which it fell to Averill Park in this same round a year earlier. The Red Rams' effort was there, but enough outside shots did not fall and the Flying Horses contained Cydney Goodrum in the paint in the latter stages en route to returning home for state championship weekend.

Utica-Notre Dame was just as tough in the Class B regional, but Oneonta, denied by Cazenovia in 2011 and South Jefferson in 2012, finally broke through here, winning a 57-52 classic in large part because Mariah Ruff could not be stopped, Ruff pouring in 28 points. Cooperstown had its own close call in the Class C regional, dropping a 45-43 nail-biter to Harpursville as Mariah Drummond's 26 points, including the decisive 3-pointer in the final minute, ended Coop's state title dreams.

Moving to the boys side, Section III did a bit better as three teams with plenty of good recent regional history added to that profile.

Bishop Ludden had to take down an undefeated Scotia-Glenville side in the Class A regional at SRC Arena - and did so, 58-53, overcoming Dan Kaigler's foul trouble through tough second-half defense and a fair amount of aggression from Ben Hackett, who had 19 points.

This sets up quite a weekend in Glens Falls. Not only does Ludden play Buffalo McKinley in Saturday morning's state semifinal, looking to advance to a Sunday title game against Burke Catholic or Amityville, it will also celebrate coach Pat Donnelly's induction into the New York State Basketball Coaches' Hall of Fame.

That ceremony takes place on Sunday, which just happens to be St. Patrick's Day, which just happens to be exactly one year to the day after Ludden survived Watervliet to win the 2012 state Class B championship. That's a lot of Irish to deal with.

No leprechauns or shamrocks necessary for Westhill, who wears blue anyway. Just a young basketball team ahead of schedule as the Warriors had to go to the wire to fight off Norwich in a 59-58 regional that wasn't settled until Kevin Karleski stole the last Purple Tornado pass at the horn.

What makes Westhill 2013 similar to Ludden 2012 is the big reliance on sophomores - Tyler Reynolds and Jeff Lobello, to be sure, but especially Jordan Roland, who just puts up points no matter what sort of defense is thrown at him. Roland managed 27 against Norwich, and all of them were needed as, again, the Warriors nearly saw a huge lead vanish before hanging on at the end.

Kevin King said that it's just human nature to relax with a big lead late. Maybe so, but it's doubtful that the Warriors want to have that happen again in Friday night's state semifinal against Babylon, from Long Island. The other semifinal sees Watervliet back at it, this time against Batavia, who got here thanks to an incredible buzzer-beating 3-pointer to stun Olean in the regionals.

Finally among the local sides, there's New York Mills. With Mike Adey's 500th win safely tucked away, the Marauders got 501 in a fairly routine manner, topping Marathon 70-57. Nick Comenale did it all, from 22 points to 10 steals, and got plenty of help from Cody Mariotti (double-double of 10 points and 11 boards) and Andrew Suprenant (11 points) along the way.

So now it's Mills against Argyle, from Section II, in the state semifinals, which start just before noon on Friday, with Martin Luther King (Section I) and University Prep (Section V) playing the other semifinal. the Marauders want a second state championship in three years, and all of that experience Adey and company have at this level is really valuable.

Two other Section III champs saw their bids end in the regionals. Henninger nearly erased a double-digit deficit to Troy in Class AA, but the Black Knights ran out of steam in the final minutes and the Flying Horses prevailed 60-52. And yes, New Rochelle is still going after a last-second 3-pointer (of the more conventional variety) beat Kingston.

For Beaver River and its large legion of fans that helped move the Class C regional to SRC Arena, the dream ended in a blizzard of hot early shooting from Moravia, who dominated from start to finish in an impressive 65-42 win.

So the Beavers, and Black Knights, go to the sidelines, as do the girls from J-D, Cooperstown and Utica-Notre Dame. Everyone else from Section III, though, still carries the dream of getting that gold state championship plaque by the time the games in Glens Falls and Troy are done.

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