Step by step, and victory by victory, the West Genesee girls basketball team built itself up to just where it would stand on Sunday afternoon – at Troy’s Hudson Valley Community College, with a state Class AA championship a victory away.
That the ultimate prize remained elusive was not in any way a commentary on the quality of the Wildcats – just the fact that it ran into an unstoppable opponent.
Indeed, WG lost that title game 93-46 to Section I powerhouse Ossining, who earned its fifth state championship of the decade to go with the four in a row it won from 2013 to 2016.
Yet that result could not erase everything the Wildcats accomplished in 2018-19, from a third consecutive Section III title to a second straight appearance in the state final four, where, unlike 2018, it went one round further.
WG reached the championship game with a superb all-around effort in Saturday’s state semifinal against Section V champion Bishop Kearney, taking charge from the outset and never getting caught in a 59-45 victory over the Kings.
Nearly everything went as WG planned it, from the balance and variety shown on offense to a defense that established itself early and never let Kearney get comfortable.
The Wildcats and Kings both lost in last March’s state semifinals on this same HVCC court. Back again in Troy, they each focused on stopping the other side’s top players.
In WG’s case, that meant containing Kearney’s 6-foot sophomore, Saniaa Wilson, and it proved quite successful in that effort, forcing Wilson into foul trouble early in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Kings were dead-set on keeping Mackenzie Smith, the Wildcats’ leading scorer throughout the post-season, from burning them, but her teammates gladly stepped up.
Sparked by nine points from Catie Cunningham, WG zoomed out to a 16-6 lead by the end of the first quarter. Madison Smith got seven points before halftime, but even with Wilson getting her third foul, Kearney pushed back and only trailed by five, 25-20, at the break.
But when Wilson went to the bench with her fourth foul early in the third period, the Wildcats pounced, not with the Smith sister, as so often the case, but with its underrated supporting cast.
Abby Bednarski and Aleysha Castanon hit four 3-pointers between them, all part of a decisive 15-2 run. The margin stretched out to 48-27 by the fourth quarter, ultimately out of the Kings’ reach.
Madison Smith helped put the game away as she finished with a team-high 18 points. Cunningham, recovering well from the ankle injury she suffered a week earlier in the regional final against Shenendehowa, had 14 points. Bednarski got nine points as Mackenzie Smith had eight assists and Kaitlyn Walker grabbed nine rebounds.
And this led to the state final – and to Ossining, who had beaten Longwood 68-55 in its semifinal game. The Pride was led by State Player of the Year Aubrey Griffin, who is going to the University of Connecticut this fall.
Before tip-off, the Wildcats were relaxed and confident that it could contain Griffin and her talented teammates – but that didn’t prove the case.
Instead, Ossining all but decided the outcome during a first-half blitz where the Pride rattled off 20 consecutive points. Even with multiple defenders on her, Griffin kept driving to the basket and converting, and Ossining’s defensive pressure smothered the Wildcats for long stretches.
The margin got to 32-4 early in the second quarter, and even when WG was able to mount a small run late in the period, the Pride answered it with 3-pointers from Jaida Shippoli and Julia Iorio, and extended its lead to 47-14 by halftime.
By now, Griffin had 15 points and her Seton Hall-bound teammate, Kailah Harris, had 14 points, and the only question remaining was where the margin would end up.
It got to 74-28 by the end of the third quarter, Ossining not letting up even with the outcome long decided as Griffin, despite a tender knee, finished with 35 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Tough as the ending was, in no way could it diminish all the great things the Wildcats did to reach this plateau.
WG now will see the Smith sisters depart, along with Walker, Castanon and Tara Osterdale, putting a big burden on the likes of Cunningham, Bednarski and Meredith James to maintain this great run in 2019-20.
Mar 20, 2019