Two good matchups, two great atmospheres, two very impressive wins.
I watched McKinley put on a great showing at a jam-packed Riverside, winning 69-60, before joining a standing-room-only crowd at Nichols, where the Vikings thumped Canisius, 72-47.
There's a lot here in this post, from great teams to great plays to packed gyms to packed parking lots to officiating to mascots to our all-time All-WNY team. Hey, what can I say? It was a fun couple of hours of high school hoops.
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Yale Cup games are listed at 5:30 p.m., which is a good time to show up to make sure you get a seat, but the games tend to start around 5:45, which is when this reporter usually shows up around the scorer's table.
Today Riverside's JV survived a tense game to beat McKinley, which will give those kids some tremendous experience -- it's amazing to think that the Yale Cup didn't even have JV up until a few years ago.
But all that JV excitement was not-so-great news for hoop junkies like myself who were planning on catching the Canisius-Nichols game afterward. The McKinley-Riverside tip-off didn't come until about 6 p.m.
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Speaking of the two games, while they were both fantastic atmospheres, they were strikingly different.
The Yale Cup games have a tempo unlike any other games in Western New York. The gyms are old and small, the volume is turned up and pace can be ridiculous sometimes. Over at Nichols, a larger gym was also packed, the pace a little more half-court, but the teams were still battling (all you had to do was look at Canisius' big men vs. Nichols' Will Regan). At Riverside, our photographer was having trouble because the gym was so dark -- at Nichols it felt like spotlights were lighting the court.
Another not-so-good thing at Riverside -- I don't know if it was dirt or dust or what, but the court was very slippery for players and officials. There were quite a few traveling calls, and when some players put on the brakes, they slid a few inches. Obviously not ideal for hoops.
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I knew I had shown up in time when I walked into Riverside and soon saw Romeo McKinney, the longtime city coach who is now assisting at McKinley, walking down the hallway. I asked him what he thought of our 50th anniversary All-WNY series and he shook his head -- "a lotta good ballplayers from around here."
I talked briefly with longtime Riverside coach and current assistant Bill Russell about it as well, and we talked about how it's based on players' high school careers, not beyond. "That will make things interesting," Russell said.
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I've been very impressed with Riverside of late and I expected this to be an outstanding game. It was from the start, as Isaiah Jefferson continued his outstanding play early. He stole the ball from McKinley's Mansa Habeeb near midcourt, then led a fast-break to the left side and delivered an outstanding bounce pass to the right -- only to have the layup missed. Jefferson had a similar set-up later in the first quarter which also came up empty. The first ended 12-12 with both teams tenaciously battling and fast-breaking back and forth.
McKinley, as they did at the MLK Challenge against Sweet Home, subbed all five of its players out with about four minutes left in the first. And as with the Sweet Home game, there was no drop-off.
That's what makes these Macks extremely good -- tons of players playing hard, tough, well-coached ball and pressure defense, and an all-WNY first-teamer in Habeeb leading the way. As impressed as I've been with Riverside's unselfishness and composure, I thought early on that McKinley just might have too much.
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Kevin Chillis and Habeeb helped McKinley gain an edge in the second quarter with a 10-0 run in which Chillis hit a three and Habeeb scored seven points: a free throw, a transition layup, a steal-and-layup, and a fast-break finish from Chillis. That put McKinley up, 24-18, and the Macks would have a 32-26 lead at the break.
Riverside had an outstanding fast break during the run, with Jefferson starting it with a long, one-handed diagonal pass to the right side to Jordan Spearman, who dribbled hard to the lane and delivered a slick waist-level pass for a Ricky Mercado finish.
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Terry Lowe, one of the countless contributors for McKinley, put the Macks back in front, 37-34, with a smart three-point play in transition after the Frontiers had tied the game at 34-34.
Chillis finished a nice, hesitation-pump-fake move off a fast break soon after for a layup, and then knocked down a three-pointer from the left side that was set up beautifully by Habeeb. Chillis defender came at Habeeb, who lofted the ball not where Chillis was, but a few steps deeper down the left side. That kept Chillis a crucial step or two away from the defense, and in a perfect spot to catch the ball in rhythm and hit the three.
Very subtle but very good stuff from Habeeb.
There was more to come.
Riverside surged back within 42-39 on a bordering-on-ridiculous reverse layup by Mercado, who took a nice fast-break pass from Jefferson (who started the break with a steal), went left-to-right under the basket and put a mean spin on the ball to bring Riverside within 42-39 with less than three minutes left in the third. That basket came after another slick fast break by the Frontiers as Spearman went behind-the-back to fool the defense and feed Jefferson, who was fouled.
Close game, right? Not with Habeeb around.
He followed a three from the right side with another at the top of the key, followed by a deserved chest-pound, and McKinley was up, 48-39. At the outset of the fourth, Habeeb added a tough, fadeaway three from the right side to make it 55-42. Riverside came within 55-48, and Habeeb stretched the lead back to nine with a sweet teardrop in the lane after dribbling away from at least three frenetic defenders.
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Some more notables from the third-to-fourth quarters:
** Shaquille Holman had a tremendous follow basket off of some great hustle in the lane to put McKinley up, 50-42, in the final minute of the fourth, and Lowe hit a tough hanging jumper at the third-quarter buzzer while being harassed by a defender to make it 52-42. Did I mention that both players didn't even start?
** Due to a ridiculous lack of communication between the officials, the game was delayed for a few moments. One official called a foul on No. 10 red (McKinley) but the other official misunderstood and told the scorer's table as No. 10 white (Riverside). That would have been Sheldon Brown's fifth foul for Riverside, which prompted Riverside coach Ron Killinger to go ballistic, because one official was following through with the fifth foul procedure.
After a lot of shouting between Killinger and the scorer's table and one official, finally the two officials got together and realized the discrepancy. The foul was on No. 10 white. If the two officials checked that as soon as Killinger started hollering (with good reason) about it, then there isn't a delay (and I would have gotten to the Nichols-Canisius game sooner!).
** Speaking of the officials, Jefferson drove the lane late in the third quarter and was fouled so hard I could hear the slap from midcourt. But the official missed it.
Unfortunately, that's going to happen and all you can do is keep playing. But Jefferson let it bother him to the point that he was yelling at an official after he missed a three on his next possession, and he sulked by sitting on the floor against the wall during Riverside's next timeout.
Jefferson is a wonderful player who has been impressive with his all-around play and his composure in big moments the last few games. Hopefully he won't let calls get to him like that in the future.
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Jefferson hit a three to make it 63-55, but Riverside couldn't get any closer. With McKinley up, 69-56, I headed out the door and was off to Nichols: Niagara Street to the 190 to the Scajaquada (an all-time favorite Buffalo word) to Delaware to Nottingham to Amherst ...
... to an absolutely packed parking lot.
Usually I'm able to luck into a spot when a hockey mom or dad picks up a kid from Dann Memorial Rink, but not this time. I gave up after a couple of snowy-slidy laps around the lot and found the closest thing I could find -- a good ways down Crescent Ave. -- and trotted through the snow to Nichols' Gerard Gym.
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I snuck in the center doors behind one of the baskets, saw an absolutely wall-to-wall packed gym, and found myself in the rear of what was an impromptu Canisius student section -- a standing-room-only pack behind the baseline. I saw Nichols' Andrew MacKinnon inbound the ball with the pack screaming in his ear. Some great stuff. Seemed like the Crusader backers were well-behaved for the most part, although a few knuckleheads in hats were yelling some sort of menacing things at Nichols fans. Duh.
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From the spot behind the basket, I craned my neck and watched from the tips of my toes, but I had a great view of some fearless MacKinnon drives and some Connor Vandegriff finishes as Nichols clinically built on the 19-12 lead it had when I walked in. By halftime, I had found a spot near the midcourt doors and Nichols had a 39-22 lead. So much for Nichols' being rusty from its exam break and Canisius playing well of late, huh?
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Just before halftime, some players chasing after a loose ball nearly ended up in the first row -- and in the laps of University at Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon and assistant Jim Kwitchoff, who were part of the jam-packed gym.
I talked to them briefly about our 50th anniversary All-WNY series because we certainly want to consult with them -- but they were way ahead of me. They have our list of all-time All-WNY first-teamers from the paper, and they're going to spend their next bus trip hashing out their version of the team. Awesome.
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Just before the start of the second half, after a fellow hoop fan has found me a seat (behind Lazar Hayward Sr. and next to Time Warner commentator and hoop junkie Mark Collins), I see that Nichols' Viking mascot has taken his head off.
But it's actually a her.
Then I turn to someone and say, "isn't that Caitlin Donahoe?"
That's a new one: three-sport standout/mascot.
"I do a little bit of everything," the All-WNY basketball, lacrosse and soccer first-teamer shrugged.
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Back to the hoops. Will Regan hit a running hook despite Canisius big guy Andrew Zdrojewski being all over him. He played Regan extremely tough, which Canisius should, especially with he and Pat Wilson available to do so.
Ron Canestro continued to show that he is a serious big-game player. Canisius cut the lead to 10 (44-34) thanks to a deep three-pointer and a terrific finish to a hanging-in-the-air-a-little-longer-than-most-players drive by Blair Helton, Canestro made several great plays.
The guard did some quality acrobatics of his own on a baseline drive in which he went at two defenders and hit a shot off the glass.
A Sean Brady jumper and a neat Zdrojewski drive brought Canisius within 46-38. Then Canestro found a slashing Regan in the lane with a nice pass over the defense, hit two free throws and did something he does every game at least once: steals a ball in the backcourt for a layup. Ben Meyer pitched in with a three-pointer, and Canestro finished an off-balance drive with a bank shot just before the buzzer for a 57-38 Nichols lead heading to the fourth.
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A few last looks at the basket:
** Vandegriff has improved greatly from the beginning of the season. The junior seemed a little tentative at the beginning of the season, which is understandable when you consider he was going from the Niagara-Orleans League to playing Grover Cleveland and Niagara Falls.
** When MacKinnon is hitting threes and Vandegriff is active inside, these guys are extremely good. Regan was harassed all night by the Canisius big men, but the Vikings had the balance (four double-figure scorers) to blow the Crusaders out anyway.
** The question was posed to me if I thought Nichols would go undefeated in league play. Even though they look terrific, and this is about as good a statement win as any when it comes to Manhattan Cup talk, I'll say no. The Vikings are in the toughest league in Western New York, which has already proved to be topsy-turvy with teams knocking off each other. I certainly think they are at a different level than the rest of the league. But every year something wacky happens in the Monsignor Martin (like Nichols losing at Timon last year).
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Here is Thursday's high school scoreboard.
Nice win for South Park over Middle College, and Grover Cleveland survives a trip to Lafayette.