Knights deliver in crunch time against Whitesboro

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Hotly contested.

That was Tuesday night’s boys basketball contest between Tri-Valley League Colonial Division powers Rome Free Academy and visiting Whitesboro.

The Black Knights outlasted the Warriors, 77-73, in an up-tempo, back-and-forth game that saw both teams lead by no more than eight points.

“I thought we made a couple of more plays than they did,” RFA coach Nick Medicis said. “A couple of bounces and the ball rolls in for them, maybe it’s a different outcome. We were lucky enough to get a couple of stops when we needed to.”

Sophomore point guard Jeremiah Bartholomew came through in the clutch for Rome as he converted the final two field goals. He gave RFA a 73-71 advantage with a driving layup with 1:56 remaining. Whitesboro junior guard Zach Britt tied the game at 73 with 1:16 left on a putback basket. Bartholomew gave the Black Knights the lead for good with another driving layup with 1:03 remaining.

“Coach (Medicis) kept telling me to keep attacking and keep the pace up, so I kept attacking,” said the 5-foot-11 Bartholomew of going against Whitesboro’s 2-3 zone defense. “I felt like I had a little bit of an advantage on the defender (Joe Panuccio), and the big (Avery Cook) wasn’t helping so I kept going up.”

Medicis added, “Jeremiah made a couple of big baskets going up strong. He’s improved so much from the beginning of the year until now. He’s attacking the basket and making good decisions. We rely a lot on him and he’s doing a really good job.”

Senior center Avery Cook missed a pair of layups in the final minute for the Warriors and RFA junior forward Andrew Recco sank a pair of free throws for the Black Knights with 20 seconds left to close out the scoring.

“I thought we did a decent job of breaking the press,” Whitesboro coach Garrett Herthum said. “We had a couple of stretches where we missed a couple of layups here and there. We made those in earlier games and we didn’t make them tonight.”

RFA, which has won four straight games and improved to 10-3 overall and 6-1 in the league, was led by junior forward Damien Call with 24 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes of play.

“We played well, we pushed our tempo and worked together on our defense and offense,” said Call, who was 11-for-18 shooting from the floor and 1-for-3 from the foul line.

“Our team’s mindset is to play fast, play together, play aggressive. We come into every game scouting out all the players and how they play.”

Recco tallied 17 points and six rebounds for the Black Knights, while Bartholomew had 15 points including 13 in the decisive second half, handed out nine assists and had three steals. Senior guard Zachary Wilbert added eight points and nine rebounds.

“I thought Damien came in with a great mindset to attack the lane and the basket early on and that led to a lot of good things,” Medicis said. “We’re going to run our offense through Damien and Jeremiah and that will open things up for Camron (Williams), Recco and Wilbert to make plays.”

Medicis continued, “We got a huge spark from (Anthony) Cudhea off the bench, and (Jaelen) McNatt came in and gave us big minutes in the middle. We’re at our best when we have six or seven guys contributing and filling up the stat sheet.”

Cudhea scored five points in the second half and McNatt grabbed three rebounds.

Whitesboro, which had its nine-game winning streak snapped and dropped to 9-2 overall and 3-1 in the league, had four starters in double-digits. Cook, who is a Division I baseball recruit for St. John’s, paced the Warriors with 20 points. Senior Tommy Morreale chipped in 17 points, senior Collin McAndrew had 16 points and senior Joe Panuccio added 12 points.

“This is a really big win,” Bartholomew said. “Last year, they broke our 16-game win streak. We wanted to get them back. It also gives us confidence that we can play with good teams.”

The Black Knights jumped out to a 22-16 first-quarter lead, but the Warriors answered by outscoring the hosts 24-15 in the second quarter to grab a 40-37 halftime advantage. Call scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half, while McAndrew led the Warriors with 12 points and Cook had 10 points.

RFA trailed by as many as eight in the third quarter at 50-42 before ending the stanza on a 18-8 run to grab a 60-58 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Recco had seven points during the spurt.

“I give the kids credit. They held their composure when we got down by eight. We didn’t panic. We took a deep breath, relaxed and chipped away at the lead,” Medicis said. “It’s a huge league win coming against a really good team. I think we’re clearly getting better each game.”

RFA hosts rival Proctor High of Utica on Friday in a 5:30 p.m. junior varsity start.

The Black Knights defeated the Raiders, 72-63, last Saturday during the third annual Mohawk Valley Basketball Classic at Utica College.

The TVL Colonial Division rematch between RFA and Whitesboro will be their regular-season finale on Friday, Feb. 8 in Whitesboro.

“That was two good teams going against one another with neither one getting a double-digit lead,” Herthum added.

“Credit to them. They played hard, got downhill and they hit shots when they needed to.”

(Editor’s note: Rome Free Academy junior Lauren LaForest contributed to this story.)

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