Knights hold off Whitesboro in retaining league crown

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WHITESBORO — Back-to-back.

Rome Free Academy won its second straight Tri-Valley League Colonial Division boys basketball title on Friday night with a hard-fought 59-57 victory over Whitesboro despite a valiant comeback attempt by the Warriors.

The Black Knights, who won their 10th game in a row, improved to 16-3 overall and 11-1 in the league. The Warriors dropped to 16-3 overall and 9-2 in the league.

Rome swept the regular-season series with Whitesboro as the Black Knights won the first meeting against the Warriors on Jan. 8 on RFA’s home court, 77-73.

“It’s a big win. It’s a rivalry game,” said RFA senior Zachary Wilbert, who missed all of last year due to a torn ACL. “It’s good to do it on the road. We know they wanted it bad and we wanted it bad. It’s definitely a great feeling. League championships are a big deal. It’s going to be good to see our number on the banner.”

Junior Damien Call led the Black Knights with 17 points and seven rebounds. Wilbert had 16 points including three three-pointers and five rebounds.

“He played outstanding,” said RFA veteran coach Nick Medicis of Wilbert, who scored eight of his points in the third quarter. “He had the big, bulky brace on in the beginning of the year. Every game he’s getting better. Clearly he’s getting more confidence and helping us more.”

Senior Camron Williams tallied 10 points, all in the first half, before getting into foul trouble and added five steals for Rome, while sophomore Jeremiah Bartholomew handed out six assists.

“It feels great,” Call said. “We definitely worked for it, and our next goal is to get through the next round of sectionals and work from there. We have one game left and we have some momentum going into the playoffs. We’ve had some close games. It will help us to continue to make big shots and have faith in each other in crunch time.”

Williams added, “It feels great. To go into the gym and to see our number on the banner will be huge for us...We knew they wouldn’t quit. We had to keep our poise and I think we did that in the end.”

RFA, which never trailed in the contest, led by as many as 16 at 50-34 with 2:51 remaining in the third quarter. The Black Knights, who had a 52-39 lead at the end of the third quarter, were held to just seven points in the final stanza and were outscored 18-7.

Junior Andrew Recco made a layup with 4:28 remaining to give the Knights a 57-45 lead and that would be their final field goal of the game.

Whitesboro senior forward Tom Morreale scored the last of his game-high 24 points on a three-pointer to cap a 9-0 run and cut the deficit to 57-54 with 3:04 left. Call then made a pair of free throws and Warriors senior Collin McAndrew converted a layup that pulled them within three again at 59-56 with 2:36 left. Whitesboro junior Zach Britt split a pair of free throws to close the deficit to 59-57 with 55.3 seconds to go. Both teams missed shots on their next possessions.

The Warriors called timeout with 2.4 seconds remaining after Call, who was 5-for-10 from the foul line, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 8.8 seconds remaining. Morreale inbounded the ball to senior Joe Panuccio, whose potential game-winning three-point attempt fell short at the buzzer.

“We were trying to get it back to him [Morreale],” Whitesboro coach Garrett Herthum said. “Had a little screen that we didn’t get. I told Joe [Panuccio], if you catch it and can make the shot, go ahead. We’re going for the win. Let it fly and shoot with confidence.”

Morreale added, “I was supposed to get the ball back, but they hung with me and I wasn’t open.”

“Our team continued to fight,” Morreale continued. “We’re a relentless team. We kept competing. The game just didn’t come out in our favor.”

McAndrew chipped in 12 points for the Warriors.

In the fourth quarter, “we changed our defense up and went with a three-quarter court press,” Herthum said. “I thought they got comfortable in our half-court defense. We were hoping to get to the fourth quarter with a chance to tie or take the lead. Credit to our guys, they battled.

“When we looked up at the end of the third quarter and saw the score wasn’t going their way, they did what they had to do. Going into the third and fourth quarters, we just told our guys, get into your spots and take advantage. We got some looks and we were able to get behind their press.”

The Black Knights, who average 83 points per game and before Friday night hadn’t scored less than 69 points in any game, were held to their lowest point total of the season despite jumping out to a 23-12 lead after the first quarter. RFA led 36-28 at halftime. Call paced the Knights with 11 first-half points.

“It was a lot closer than I wanted it to be,” Medicis said.

“I thought we did some real good things throughout the game. We have to find ways to finish games, but good teams find a way to win games.”

“They’re a good team for a reason,” Medicis said of Whitesboro. “They controlled the pace of the game in the fourth quarter, slowed it down and we made some mistakes. It will prepare us for sectionals.”

RFA will conclude its regular season with a non-league game Monday night at 6:30 against visiting Henninger High of Syracuse, one day after the Section III seeding meeting.

The Black Knights, who are expected to be awarded a home game as a high seed in the playoffs, haven’t lost since falling at Class AA power West Genesee 93-83 on Dec. 27.

“I think we’re continuing to improve and getting better each game,” Medicis said. “I think it shows our program improves each year. Keep feeding the varsity team.

“Now we have to take the next step and win some games in sectionals. We have ourselves in a spot where we can hopefully make some noise in sectionals.”

Rome has not won a sectional game since 1993.

“They’re a great team,” said Morreale of Rome. “They came out on fire and kept pushing the ball. I wish them the best in sectionals. It’s always fun to play them.”

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