The Liverpool boys basketball team earned its second consecutive Section III Class AA championship Sunday night in the Carrier Dome, holding off Nottingham 67-63. The win improved the state no. 2-ranked Warriors’ record to 23-0 as it advances to face Shenendehowa in this Saturday’s regional final.
Do not let the 23-0 record, or the no. 2 state ranking, serve as a guide to how challenging it was for the Liverpool boys basketball team to repeat as Section III Class AA champions.
“Everyone was trying to knock us off this time,” said head coach Ryan Blackwell. “It wasn’t easy.”
And two of the Warriors’ most difficult hurdles came at the tail end of the sectional playoffs, from the last-minute 73-69 semifinal win over Bishop Ludden to Sunday night’s 67-63 verdict over Nottingham in the sectional AA final at the Carrier Dome.
On the very same Jim Boeheim Court where he starred as a player nearly two decades ago, Blackwell said that he was more nervous now because he had less control over the situation and could only watch as his Liverpool players survived a serious scare.
Right up until Kyle Butler sank the clinching free throw with 6.2 seconds left, Nottingham had a chance to knock off Liverpool.
In no way did the no. 7 seed Bulldogs resemble the uneven side the Warriors beat twice by double digits during the regular season. Instead, it bore more of a resemblance to the confident, fearless Nottingham group that had knocked off no. 2 seed Rome Free Academy and no. 3 seed Central Square to get this far.
Even when the Warriors went on an 11-0 run in the second quarter to take a 30-17 lead, the Bulldogs didn’t waver, instead answering with a 14-0 spurt of its own before Butler’s 3-pointer from the corner pushed Liverpool back in front 33-31 at halftime.
Most of the third quarter belonged to senior Charles Pride. The eventual sectional tournament MVP had already made his mark on the game with a 25-foot, banked-in 3-pointer at the end of the first period that broke a 13-13 tie.
Now, with his team trailing 41-40, Pride caught fire, hitting a pair of 3-pointers to go with one he already had made in the period and then connecting a fourth time beyond the arc while getting fouled. The ensuing free throw gave Pride 14 points in the quarter on his way to a game-high 25 points to go with 11 rebounds.
Yet even that didn’t faze Nottingham, who fought back to regain a 58-57 lead on Jakair Sanchez’s layup with 3:38 left.
With the Bulldogs shutting off Pride, and Nas Johnson battling through foul trouble (he only had two points in the second half after nine in the first half), someone else needed to step up for the Warriors, and Alan Willmes Jr. did so.
Willmes put in the go-ahead layup with 3:16 left. After sinking two free throws, Willmes returned to sink a big jump shot with 1:21 to play, making it 63-60 after the Bulldogs had cut it to one. Of Willmes’ 18 points, eight of them came in the fourth quarter.
“I was just doing my best to help the team win,” said Willmes. “These are the guys I want to go to war with.”
The score got to 66-60 when, with 6.2 seconds to play, Nottingham freshman Mazi Jackson was fouled in the corner attempting a 3-point shot. Jackson sank all three free throws, cutting Liverpool’s lead in half.
Before the ball was inbounded again, Butler was fouled. Since it was the Bulldogs’ 10th team foul, Butler had two free throws – which was good, since the first never touched the rim, an air ball.
Butler, who had made a key steal seconds earlier (just like he had done late in the Ludden game), smiled at his terrible shot, relaxed and rattled the second one through the net to clinch another Liverpool sectional title.
Nottingham lost despite shooting 51.1 percent (24 for 47) from the floor, with Sanchez earning 13 of his 17 points in the second half, plus nine rebounds. Jackson had 16 points and Argjend Imeri added 13 points, plus eight rebounds.
On Saturday night at 6:30, Liverpool travels to Troy’s Hudson Valley Community College to face Section II champion Shenendehowa in the Class AA regional final. The winner goes to Binghamton March 17-18 for the state final four.