CICERO — It’s been a long time coming, but the Westmoreland Bulldogs are finally going to the finals.
It was another tight battle between two familiar foes in Saturday’s Section III Class C-1 basketball semifinal matchup against Thousand Islands at Cicero-North Syracuse High School with neither team looking to back down and finish their season on a disappointing note.
But in the end, it took two big circumstances to change the entire outcome of the game and put the No. 2 seed Westmoreland team out on top once again over second-seeded Thousand Islands, 58-42.
The win advances the Bulldogs into the boys basketball sectional finals for the first time in school history.
"I’m elated because it’s a really special moment not only for me but the kids and I owe it all to them," Westmoreland coach Jim Sojda said. "The bottom line is these kids worked hard with the consistent pushing throughout the season. We had a goal and we wanted to accomplish that goal and I think we did a good job of doing that."
The win sends the Bulldogs into the Class C-1 championship round to battle the bracket’s top seed, Tully, on Friday at the Utica Memorial Auditorium in a 6 p.m. start. Tully defeated fifth-seeded Sandy Creek in the other semifinal contest on Saturday at C-NS, 49-46.
The meeting marked the third time the Bulldogs battled the Thousand Islands in the Class C tournament, with each one ending in classic fashion.
This contest proved to be no different from the rest as neither squad pulled away from the other with numerous lead changes happening throughout the first half.
The lead changes quickly halted though near the end of the second period when the Vikings’ leading scorer in the first quarter with eight points and 14 in the half, Ryan Hanrahan committed a costly technical foul that allowed Travis Rogers to sail in his two free throw shots and give Westmoreland a three-point lead at the 1:10 mark.
DeCarlo said the foul played an important part in the match which led to the Bulldogs shutting Hanrahan down to score two points the rest of the way.
"It was huge because we knew that once he got that technical, the whole team knew he was a hot head," said DeCarlo. "We just used it against him and tried to make him more upset and it worked."
The other adjustment DeCarlo said was made to stop Hanrahan was preventing him from going to his game of attacking the basket and forcing him to shoot from the outside.
Following another field goal made ten seconds later, the Bulldogs pulled it out a little bit with a five-point lead before the Vikings’ Jacob Waterman fired in a three-point basket at the buzzer from nearly half-court to close it up at the half, 26-24.
Waterman, who tallied 14 total points, helped bail the Vikings out again in the third period with another trey to close within four of the Bulldogs with two more buckets coming from Hanrahan and Kyle Busby, respectively to tie it up at 33-33.
Afterwards, Bulldogs captains DeCarlo and junior Jason Colburn knew it was time to finish off the Vikings once and for all.
DeCarlo started the drive off by putting the Bulldogs ahead by two with a field goal of his own under the hoop but then followed with a big rebound then quickly passed the ball over to Colburn, who was nearly unchallenged at half court, and drove it to the Vikings’ basket for not only the score but also a foul call that led to an additional free throw point.
That drive plus an additional two points from DeCarlo put the Bulldogs up 40-33 at the end of the third quarter.
"All it takes is for one play to turn a whole game around and change everyone’s mindset," said DeCarlo. "It was crazy the way it worked but that’s the way it is."
Sojda agreed that play put the momentum in the Bulldogs’ favor and it was enough for them to pull out the win.
"The bottom line was getting the momentum in our favor," he said. "That rebound and pass got guys in the position to get energetic and to keep playing hard."
Colburn soon followed up midway throughout the fourth quarter with two straight three-point baskets which was enough to give Westmoreland not only a nine-point lead but the eventual winning decision with the Bulldogs outscoring the Vikings 18-9 the rest of the way.
"They beat us up inside and we just couldn’t handle their size in there," said Thousand Islands head coach Scott Lalonde. "It got us tired in the second half. We made a run back but we lost our legs and couldn’t make any more shots." The reemergence of Colburn and DeCarlo didn’t do the Vikings any favors either as the duo combined for 35 points in the contest after only scoring 13 total in the first half. Colburn led with 18 points and DeCarlo finished with 17.
"Everyone looks up to them as the leaders and I rely on them to set the motion of the game and they did a great job," Sojda said. "On any night anyone can do anything on this team but those two guys have been special all season long. I’m proud of their effort and leading us to this position."
Sojda added that the defensive effort played a huge role in the outcome but there are still adjustments that need to be made in order to win at the next level. But for now, he said he and the Bulldogs will enjoy the moment of heading to the C-1 finals before getting back to work. "I’m proud of the kids, the community and everyone that has supported us along the way," he said. "This has been a journey and if we get that next win, it’s going to get even better."