Cicero-North Syracuse guard Omar Mere (2) goes over three Liverpool defenders in a drive to the basket during Friday's game. Despite Mere's 11 points and eight rebounds, the Northstars lost, 75-66, to the unbeaten, state Classs AA no. 6-ranked Warriors.
Take Charles Pride off the court, and then have Nas Johnson join him on the bench, and the Liverpool boys basketball isn’t as imposing.
Or at least that is the initial assumption.
Without either player on hand for a long stretch of Friday night’s game at Cicero-North Syracuse, the undefeated, state Class AA no. 6-ranked Warriors erased a double-digit deficit and prevailed, 75-66, to complete a regular-season sweep of the Northstars.
Improving to 15-0 required the usual energy and effort any game between Liverpool and C-NS entails, but it also required increased focus after Johnson suffered a facial injury midway through the second quarter.
It was already a harrowing situation for the Warriors. Pride, who burned the Northstars for 31 points in less than three quarters during an 83-52 victory on Dec. 22, was still out with the ankle injury suffered in the double-overtime win over Henninger a week earlier.
Without Pride, Liverpool had to work hard to beat Baldiwnsville 81-73 last Monday, and now C-NS, with its 11-3 record, was seeking payback. Thanks to hot shooting in the early stages, that seemed quite possible as the Northstars built a 31-21 lead by the second quarter.
“We knew we were playing soft,” said forward Alan Willmes Jr.
Then, after Willmes hit a layup, Johnson, the team’s leading scorer with an average of more than 16 points per game, drew an offensive foul and fell to the floor. When he got up, he ran to the other end of the court, then sat down, bleeding from his chin.
Attended to for several minutes, Johnson was able to walk off the court. At that point, said guard Kyle Butler, head coach Ryan Blackwell told his players to keep their composure and remain focused on the task.
When the game resumed, the Warriors emerged with a ferocious intensity, stunning C-NS by closing the half on a 17-3 run, with seven of the points coming from Peter Cerrone.
Trailing 40-34 early in the third quarter, the Northstars did tie it up, but after Alex Gray’s basket made it 42-42, C-NS would manage just one field goal in the next minutes.
Willmes said that, on defense, the Warriors closed up passing lanes that were open earlier in the game, forcing the Northstars into a series of missed shots and turnovers.
It amounted to a 22-7 run, and Liverpool led 64-49 with less than four minutes to play. But C-NS didn’t quit, notching eight straight points to cut the margin to seven.
By now, though, Johnson had returned, his chin bandaged around the top of his head (he would later get stitches), and after a time-out, Johnson drove to the basket, scored, drew a foul and made the ensuing free throw.
From there, the Warriors held on as Butler set a new career mark with 18 points, closely followed by Willmes, who had 17 points. Noah Issakainen, starting in place of Pride, got 14 points as Cerrone got 13 points.
C-NS saw Lukas Merluzzi earn 16 points, adding five assists. A.J. Forney had 15 points and nine rebounds as Omar Mere got 11 points and eight rebounds. Alex Gray had 10 points and seven rebounds as Jaysaun Gunn contributed eight points.
All of this followed Liverpool’s game against Baldwinsville, which didn’t prove too easy as the Warriors, perhaps drained from the Henninger battle, had to work until the final minute to turn back the Bees.
Just as it likes to do, the Warriors pushed the tempo and, by halftime, had gained a 44-32 lead. B’ville didn’t back off, though, pulling back within five, 62-57, by the end of the third quarter, and right to the end gave chase.
To hang on, Liverpool needed 22 points from Johnson and 17 points from Cerrone, who hit on four 3-pointers. Willmes gained 13 points as Issakainen got 11 points. Jacob Marshall led B’ville with 19 points, while J.J. Starling had 18 points.