UTICA — Despite falling short of capturing the school’s first Section III boys basketball championship banner, Westmoreland Central’s Bulldogs had nothing to hang their heads over on Friday night at the packed Utica Memorial Auditorium.
The Bulldogs rallied back from a rocky start and a 17-point deficit to tie the game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, only to see the Tully Black Knights pull away for a 42-37 victory in the Class C-1 final.
"In a way, it is heartbreaking," said Westmoreland coach Jim Sojda after the Bulldogs ended their season at 17-4 overall.
"We will be back, and that’s the message that I’m sending these guys. This is a body of work for us. Sometimes you have to stumble and get some experience in these games. Tully had the experience, and I give them a lot of credit," Sojda added.
Ryan Mathis hit one of two free throws for the Bulldogs to tie the score at 37-all with 2:30 left before the Black Knights’ Rory Spain was fouled underneath his own basket on the next possession to put him on the free throw line, where the No. 1 seeded Black Knights were ice cold all night, shooting a dismal 9-for-20 from the charity stripe.
Spain made the second of two shots to give his team back the lead, before the Bulldogs committed two turnovers in the final 90 seconds and Tyler Redington buried a deep three-pointer with 38.6 seconds left in regulation to give the Black Knights a 41-37 lead.
It was certainly the shot that was heard around the Aud.
"I knew the shot clock was running down, I knew we needed a big shot and I knew at the time I had the confidence in myself, so I took it," said Redington, who finished with five points and helped the team improve to 20-1 overall.
Tully, which won a sectional championship back in 2006, lost down the stretch to Onondaga in the title game last year and knew that they would rely heavily on their experience to get the job done this time around.
"Last year we lost our composure, and this year we didn’t," the senior Redington said.
Tully will face Class C-2 winner West Canada Valley, which defeated Watertown Immaculate Heart Central in overtime, 67-65, for the overall Class C title on Tuesday at Chittenango High School at 7 p.m.
"When he hit that shot, I knew we were going to have to work twice as hard now. It was a great shot and just a great play," said Westmoreland junior wingman Jason Colburn, who had a team-high 15 points.
"It was a great experience playing here for all of us, I’ll never forget playing here," Colburn added.
"First half, we didn’t play as good as we wanted, but we never gave up. And I give the team all the credit in the world for that. We came out fighting and made it a game."
The second-seeded Bulldogs were ice cold from the floor in the first half, shooting only 6-for-22 from the field, against the active 2-3 Black Knights’ zone defense. The Black Knights forced 12 first-half turnovers and 21 total for the game.
Trailing 27-14 at the half, Sojda had his team come out in the second half with some aggressive defense of its own, switching to a 1-3-1 zone defense, forcing some traps and leading to some defensive turnovers for his team to begin their rally.
Colburn poured in nine points in the second half, while Ted Flint netted four and Dan Smith hit a big three-pointer at the start of the fourth quarter to bring the score to 33-27.
Travis Rogers, who had a team-high three steals on the defensive end, then swiped the ball and connected with a sprinting Colburn towards the hoop for an easy lay up to complete a 17-2 run for the Bulldogs.
Tournament most valuable player Ben Hughes then made a layup of his own, snapping a scoreless string of 4:50 for the Black Knights between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth.
Rogers was then fouled going to the hoop and made both of his free throws to slice the deficit down to 35-34 with 4:30 left to play.
The teams exchanged buckets on their next two possessions before Rogers got called for two quick fouls back-to-back to foul out of the game at the 3:24 mark.
Tully sophomore guard Marcus Warner then fouled Mathis to set up his free throw tries for the Bulldogs to potentially take their first ever lead of the game.
Mathis made 1-of-2 and then Redington sank the deep three to seal the victory.
"He’s a clutch shooter. He struggled a little bit, but that shot was key," said Tully coach Ryan Dando, who was honored as Class C coach of the year after the game.
"We tell these guys that no kid wants their basketball careers to end, so no team is going to fold at this point. We knew that they were going to close the lead at some point," Dando added.
The 6-foot-4 senior Hughes finished with a team-high 15 points for the Black Knights, while Warner had 10 and seniors Mike Courtwright and Connor Carroll each had four.
"I didn’t think our experience wouldn’t be a factor in the first half in the game, and it was," said Sojda, in his eighth season at the helm. "I knew these guys were capable of playing that good of basketball," added Sojda about the second-half surge.
"Defensively, we were a good team all year and its helped us win the amount of games that we have. They put forth the effort in the second half. I give the credit to the kids, they didn’t give up. We wanted this championship and to be in that position.
"Hopefully, we made the community and the fans proud," said Sojda, whose teams have made it to the semifinals four of the last five years.
The Bulldogs outscored their opponents 20-16 in the paint as 6-5 senior center Dan DeCarlo had seven points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Flint scored six points, Mathis finished with four points, seven rebounds and four assists and Colburn grabbed nine rebounds.
Colburn and DeCarlo were named to the all-tournament team.
The Black Knights outrebounded the Bulldogs 28-26 on the night.
"The jitters," Colburn simply said about the way the team started the game off. "It was a big game, everyone was nervous. It put us in a big hole to come out of," he added.
"At halftime, Coach just told me to keep shooting. First half, nothing was falling in, but in the second I dropped in a few and got my confidence going, and that got the team pumped up," Colburn said.
"Hopefully we can make it back here and come out with a ‘W’ next year," he added.