Having roared to a third New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class B championship in four years, the Westhill boys basketball team turned its attention to the Federation Tournament of Champions, looking to repeat its 2014 victory in that event and not its semifinal exit in 2015.
As it turned out, the Warriors got something in between.
At Glens Falls Civic Center, the long-time host of the NYSPHSAA state final four before Binghamton took its turn this winter, Westhill used a big second half to beat the Dwight School 72-58 in the semifinals, but saw LaSalle Academy, from Manhattan, beat them 80-67 in the title game, the Cardinals keyed by a 19-1 mid-game spurt.
Westhill would make the Federation run without head coach Kevin King, who traveled to Seattle to help his daughter and son-in-law take care of a new baby. Assistant coach Jon Connelly would take over, just as he had done late in the regular season when King had an operation. The Warriors had won those two games, over Institute of Technology Central and Henninger, and now aimed to win two more.
In the Federation semifinal on Friday morning, the Warriors faced Dwight, champions of the Association of Independent Schools, and proved, for the first time in eight post-season games, that it could come from behind.
Perhaps affected by the 9 a.m. tipoff time, Westhill fell behind 9-2 in the opening minutes but answered with a 12-0 run and was up by three, 22-19, when the first quarter ended. Dwight countered with 18 unanswered points, keyed by hot perimeter shooting, and at halftime the Warriors were staring at a 36-30 deficit.
Things got worse in the third quarter when Dwight stretched its lead to 47-37, but it was there that Westhill’s man-to-man defense tightened.
Three times, Antonio Scrimale took charges, giving the Warriors possessions that it turned into points during a 14-0 outburst that stretched into the fourth quarter. Then Westhill put the game away by getting big late contributions from several sources that translated into a decisive 30-6 run.
Sean Dadey got seven of his nine rebounds in the final period, while John Geer scored eight points and Kameren Jackson contributed a trio of blocks. Also, the Warriors made sure Dwight didn’t catch up by making nine of 12 free throws down the stretch.
Again, the attack proved balanced, with four players in double figures. The surprise, though, was that Braeden Elmer led the way with 17 points and five assists, just ahead of Dadey’s total of 16 points. Jackson had 13 points, five rebounds and five assists to go with four blocks as Geer finished with 11 points and Owen Matukas added eight points.
Now, in Saturday night’s final, Westhil would face LaSalle Academy, the Catholic High School Association champions, who had knocked off undefeated Fannie Lou Hamer, the New York City PSAL champions, 61-47 in the other semifinal.
Much of the first half was a back-and-forth affair with several lead changes. An ominous sign, though, was the hot shooting of LaSalle’s James Bouknight, who notched 14 of his team’s first 20 points and had 18 points overall in those first two periods.
Late in the second quarter, though, things got away. The Cardinals picked up its defensive pressure on Westhill’s perimeter players, using its size and strength to force the Warriors into a string of bad shots and turnovers.
On the other end, LaSalle kept converting, closing the half on a 12-1 run and then notching the first seven points of the third quarter. What was a close, tight affair was suddenly a 47-27 deficit that the Warriors would spend the rest of the game trying to overcome.
And Westhill did dig away, finding its best success in the fourth quarter when, led by Dadey and Zechariah Brown, it trimmed the deficit to 59-49. Yet LaSalle scored the game’s next seven points and, despite having two starters (Isaiah Allen-Smith and Reggie Outlaw) foul out, didn’t let the Warriors get too close again.
Brown finished with 20 points, 13 of them in the final period, as Dadey got 10 points in that last frame and 20 points overall. But in a sharp contrast to Westhill’s season-long pattern, no one else got in double figures as Jackson was held to seven points, matching Matukas, and Elmer got six points.
Bouknight cooled down from his early barrage, but still led all scorers with 27 points. Allen-Smith had 15 points and Bryce Council got 13 points, while Korey Williams contributed 10 points and LaSalle claimed its first-ever Federation title.
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