James Daye was not at the Buffalo State Sports Arena to watch McKinley play in the Section VI overall Class A boys basketball final Tuesday night.

As far as anyone knows he hasn't witnessed any postseason games here that featured the team he once coached with success. If he was in the house, no one noticed. And that's probably how he wanted it.

Daye, who remains on paid administrative leave while the state investigates sex allegations while he was teaching in South Carolina, didn't attend the game for the same reason he didn't return my phone call earlier in the day.

He doesn't want this to be about him. He would prefer the attention be on the young men, as it should be.

The spotlight is back on McKinley, but this time for all the right reasons. The Macks earned a trip to the Far West Regionals by defeating a scrappy Depew squad, 58-54.

Getting one step closer to a second New York State Public School tournament appearance in three years is a nice reward for a group of kids who have weathered the storm of controversy surrounding their former coach.

But even if they had lost, getting this far would have been impressive enough. All the talk about Daye's situation had to trickle down to the players. But they didn't let it distract them. They kept their eyes on the prize, and on Tuesday night, they reaped their reward.

"It was hard at first losing coach Daye because he has been with us a long time," said Mansa Habeeb, McKinley's star guard who willed his team to victory with a tremendous fourth quarter. "But the bottom line for us was we just wanted to play basketball. We had to move forward."

McKinley returned only two starters from a team that lost to East in the overall Class A title game a year ago. It finished in third place in the Yale Cup during the regular season.

But the team continued to grow under the steady guidance of first-year head coach Zaire Dorsey and his chief assistant, Romeo McKinney. Dorsey deflected the credit for McKinley's postseason run to his players, but they didn't do it alone.

Dorsey was familiar with the players having coached many of them on McKinley's junior varsity team. But the players had to get used to McKinney, who is best known for coaching those powerful South Park teams in the 1980s.

The key to good coaching isn't always about X's and O's. It's also about getting the players to buy in to a philosophy. Once that happened everything fell into place.

"Myself and coach McKinney asked them starting Nov. 1 to trust the coaches," Dorsey said. "We put together a plan that we thought would help this team go far. What I had to do was convince the kids that that coach McKinney and I talked about everything we would do and we were going to try to put them in position to succeed. The kids listened and worked hard every day."

That hard work paid off against a tough-minded Depew team that gave McKinley everything it could handle Tuesday. The game wasn't decided until Habeeb imposed his presence at both ends of the court.

A 6-foot-4 senior, Habeeb might be the most talented high school player in Western New York. But he isn't alone. Kevin Chillis, a senior point guard, has basketball skills to go with his football prowess. He is part of a deep 11-man rotation that Dorsey and McKinney use with great effect.

Who knows if McKinley wins again in the regionals on Saturday at Brockport State, but this season is already a success.

Daye might not be around to enjoy it, but he must be proud, wherever he is.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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