All season long, the possibility of an Olean-versus-East showdown for the overall Section VI Class B title had been viewed as potential game-of-the-year material.
Rarely do these games live up to such lofty expectations, but Tuesday night’s showdown before an estimated 2,000 at Buffalo State Sports Arena did just that and then some.
The defending champion Huskies fell behind early by double digits, mounted a furious rally to take the lead and then watched helplessly with hearts in their throats as a potential miracle shot at the buzzer by the Panthers failed to drop.
That’s the short version of how News No. 1 Small School Olean survived its battle against second-ranked East, 62-59.
Senior Wil Bathurst scored 16 of his game-high 25 points during the Huskies’ 39-point second half. Then everyone watched as a three-quarters-court shot that was on line at the buzzer from Johnathon Lewis bounce off the back iron instead of through the rim to end one of the best games of the year in Western New York.
“To be honest with you, I thought it was going in,” said Olean coach Jeff Anastasia.
“My heart stopped for a second,” said Huskies senior Sam Eckstrom. “You just pray it doesn’t go in. Thankfully it didn’t go in.”
Olean (19-3) advanced to the Far West Regionals for the third year in a row and will face the Section V (Rochester-area) champion at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Buffalo State. It will be either Charlotte or Leadership Academy, who will play for the Section V title this afternoon at 5:30 p.m. at Edison Tech.
It’s the second year in a row the Huskies beat East (18-4) in the Class B crossover game. The Panthers made their foe work for the win on Tuesday.
East led 15-10 after one and 32-23 at halftime as it forced turnovers with well-timed traps and just made a veteran Olean team uncomfortable. The halftime talk by the Huskies was blunt and didn’t involve X’s and O’s.
“You are too good of a team to not play your game” when it matters, said Anastasia of his motivational speech. “We have three 1,000-point scorers on this team. Play like it.”
The Huskies responded with a 21-9 third quarter fueled by Bathurst’s nine points and nine from Nick Schmidt, whose trey at the buzzer broke a 41-41 tie and gave Olean the lead for good. The keys to the quarter: Bathurst asserting himself on offense, and East rushing shots at times instead of playing with poise.
“We were so caught up when we had the lead that we needed to slow the game down,” said Lewis, a senior who finished with 24 points for the Panthers. “We didn’t do it.”
East hung in there even though starters Percy Bryant and 6-foot-9 Tyree Tyson were in foul trouble. Both fouled out and the Panthers had 12 fouls in the second half while Olean had six.
“It was a heck of a game,” East coach Starling Bryant said. “I just wish the game was determined more by the kids on the floor than the officials.”
Lewis scored seven points over the final 61 seconds to keep the Panthers close. His trey with 12 seconds left pulled the Panthers within 60-59.
He thought he forced overtime, just seconds after a turnover near half court (a clean steal by Schmidt who then called timeout) seemed to have ended East’s chances.
“It felt good when it came off my hand,” Lewis said of his buzzer-beating attempt.
The Huskies bolted to an early 6-2 lead, but East sprang trapping defenses to slow them and fuel its transition game as a 13-0 run led to a 15-10 lead after eight minutes.
The Panthers led by as much as 14 (32-18) with 2:03 left after a pair of Lewis free throws. Olean chipped away, though, as Bathurst canned a three-pointer and Eckstrom an inside basket before halftime.
Bathurst scored the first four points of the third quarter and then Eckstrom (17 points) put back a Bathurst miss to draw the Huskies within 34-28.
“We feel pretty fortunate, but we feel we deserved this,” said Bathurst, who finished off an alley-oop dunk early in the fourth quarter off a Schmidt feed to pump the Olean faithful.