(Marcellus Cooper flys over to help Desean Ashley defend for Amherst)
Before a new campaign begins for teams each year, I produce a high school basketball season preview, and in it is always a section titled 'What's New'. Among the developments coming in was the move of Amherst to ECIC II, meaning they would be playing in the same division as Williamsville South. After two epic games in front of incredible crowds, it has to be the best thing that changed from last season.
"This is how every high school game should be," Amherst coach Chris Kensy said. "Will South support, our support...they stood the whole time and they were in it."
Tiger fans known as the 'Amherst Jungle' chanted "We own Main Street" as the clock ticked down on a hard fought 71-61 victory for Amherst over Williamsville South. The Tigers pulled away from South late and pulled even with them for first place in ECIC II with the win.
After trading scores in the opening three minutes, Amherst was the first to heat up. A 13-1 run to finish the opening quarter gave the home team an early double figure lead, 18-8, to set the tone and get the crowd rocking.
"Basketball is a game of runs," Kensy said. "We got ours first and we knew they were going to answer."
The Billies' run came in the form of the second quarter, as defensive intensity and sharp shooting carried them throughout an eight minute stretch. Mark Worthy lit up the Tigers defense for four of his five 3-pointers in the game, spread out evenly throughout the frame. Worthy also had a nice steal and assist during a dominant quarter for South.
Greg Dolan finished the half with a play only a player of his caliber is capable of. After battling for a rebound against multiple bigger players, he dribbled out of a wild scramble and pushed the ball ahead of the pack, going coast-to-coast and getting a wild finish to fall. In all, a 26-13 frame saw South go from ten down to leading 34-31 at the break.
"Take care of the basketball, control the glass, and have passion," Kensy said of his message to the team at halftime.
Two minutes into the second half, the Billies had increased their lead to the largest of the game, 44-33, with 10-2 run. It was at that point when Amherst recalled the halftime message.
Marcellus Cooper produced a little spark as a reminder. The high-flying senior converted a team steal for a breakaway slam dunk and followed it up on the next possession with a traditional three-point play to ignite a 9-0 run to cut South's lead to two. The Billies went back up by four late in the frame, before Cooper did something else special. Just before the buzzer rang to end the third quarter, he let a shot fly from beyond half court and buried it. It pulled his team within one, 50-49, and gave them all the momentum heading into the final stanza.
The pivotal run in the third quarter was enabled at the defensive end by Amherst, as they kept the Billies off the scoreboard for over a stretch of four minutes. The Tigers continued to switch up defensive schemes throughout and then executed them.
"Going against a well coached team and a very good player in Greg Dolan, we've got to change our gears," Kensy said.
Dolan netted the first bucket of the fourth quarter for a 52-49 South lead, but a 7-0 run with scores from Desean Ashley, Da'Shawn Hines, and an 'And 1' from Jordan Barr gave the Tigers a 56-52 lead. The Billies would not see another lead in the game. A pair of trips to the stripe cut the Amherst lead to 62-60 with 2:30 left in the game, but a 9-1 close out put the game away.
"The better team won today, make no mistake about that," South coach Gabe Michael said. "They were better than us and they were tougher inside. You can't give a team that many points in the paint and expect to win the game."
Beyond the dominance inside from a deep Tigers squad, the guard play of Hines and Ashley was excellent.
"We're on our way to becoming a very good team," Kensy said.
Cooper led the Tigers with 17 points, Hines scored 16 points, and Ashley finished with 12 points. Barr added nine points, with five coming in the fourth quarter.
South was led by Dolan's 21 points, with Worthy adding 16 points.
Following the game, Michael was asked if he'd like to see a rubber match in March at Buffalo State, in the form of the overall Class A title game and regional qualifier.
"Not even in my head right now," said Michael. "McKinley, North Tonawanda, Grand Island...all these teams are just sitting there waiting for us. If we're worried about Amherst, we're in the wrong place."
South 8 - 26 - 16 - 11 = 61
Amherst 18 - 13 - 18 - 22 = 71
Amherst: Marcellus Cooper 17, Da'Shawn Hines 16, Desean Ashley 12, Jordan Barr 9, Will Alfieri 7, Richard Kay 4, Jordan Funderburk 4, Brian Fulford 2
South: Greg Dolan 21, Mark Worthy 16, Dakota Wiley 8, Adam Braniecki 6, Cody Sanford 5, Devin Degree 3, Anthony Lombardo 2