Coach Mike Chatelle knew that if his Amherst girls basketball team earned a chance to play Williamsville South a third time that it would have meant the Tigers had a nice season.
Nice may no longer be a strong enough adjective to describe the year. That's because Amherst has done something it's never done before -- punch its ticket to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Tournament.
The Tigers won their first overall Section VI championship Wednesday night by defeating South, their league and Main Street rival, 63-47 in Class A before an estimated 1,000 at Buffalo State Sports Arena.
Eight different players scored for Amherst, with three hitting double-figures. Niagara University-bound senior Claire Wanzer scored 20 points, while eighth-grader Emma Klein had 13 to go along with six steals as the News' No. 4-ranked Large School beat the second-ranked Billies for the first time in three tries this season.
"Nothing could be better than this, playing with this group of girls and going this far, like a lot farther than we've ever gone before," Wanzer said. "It just feels awesome."
With Class A-1 champion Williamsville South missing point guard Hannah Dolan (broken bone in her ankle and torn ligament), Amherst's transition game feasted off turnovers it forced using its version of the 1-2-2 zone the Billies have been known to use to frustrate teams.
The Tigers scored 11 of their first 16 points off steals as they finished with 20 for the game.
Klein, a lightning quick guard, was all over the place in the first quarter taking the ball away from South ball handlers five times. She did it twice in a 17-second span just 1 minute, 13 seconds into the game – turning both turnovers just after the Billies had inbounded the ball into layups as Amherst bolted to a 7-0 lead.
Back-to-back steals by Leah Shutts and Wanzer led to four more points in a matter of seconds later in the quarter, pushing the lead to 16-3 and forcing South to take a timeout. The Tigers led 25-13 after eight minutes.
The Billies (20-4), who lost in last year's overall Class A final and are two years removed from winning the state title, trimmed their deficit to seven on a pair of Zaria McCullough free throws with 4 minutes left in the second quarter. They did so again on 6-foot-4 eighth-grader Amari DeBerry's putback 40 seconds later. DeBerry, who burned Amherst defenders in each of the first two meetings this season, led South with a game-high 23 points.
But Amherst had the answers on this day.
"No excuses but I knew as soon as that cast went on Hannah it was a huge mountain to climb because just one real ball-handler against any type of trapping defense …," South coach Kristen Dolan said. "Hat's off to Amherst. Outstanding athletes and great kids. They played very, very well. They took us out of our rhythm."
— Miguel Rodriguez (@miggyrod33) March 8, 2017
Shutts finished with five steals and six points for the Tigers, who received contributions from everyone to win perhaps the biggest game in program history
Morgan Halt had 12 points. Hannah Bardeen finished with four points and had a block at the end of the first half that led to a transition basket that enabled Amherst go into intermission with a 37-25 lead. Camryn Sullivan scored four points and played with energy in the paint against the much taller DeBerry.
— Miguel Rodriguez (@miggyrod33) March 9, 2017
"It's more than points. Everyone had to contribute against a team like South," Chatelle said. "We had to play as a team tonight."
Amherst (20-4) faces Section V champion Pittsford Mendon at 11 a.m. Saturday to start a five-game slate of Far West Regional contests at Buffalo State.
"It's an awesome feeling," Chatelle said. "I'm sure the girls feel like that but they also know how hard they worked to achieve it. They believed in themselves."