The words didn’t escape their mouths, but when it felt like Nichols might be on the verge of ending Cardinal O’Hara’s boys basketball season for the third year in a row, the play of Nasir Benton and his teammates rose to the level that screamed the equivalent of enough is enough.
Instead the Hawks seized control by hunkering down on defense and quickening the pace of their clash to secure a spot in a playoff championship game for the first time since 1994.
Cardinal O’Hara rode the hot shooting hand of Benton and inside scoring of Jaedin Cottman to earn a 54-46 comeback victory over the Vikings in the first of two Manhattan Cup Class B semifinal games Saturday night at Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center.
Benton scored 12 of his game-high 21 points during a third quarter in which the Hawks overcame a 32-27 deficit by closing the final 4:47 on a 14-3 run. They never trailed again in advancing to Tuesday night’s 6 p.m. final at the Koessler Athletic Center.
“It’s good to get that monkey off our back,” winning coach Tony Pulvirenti said. “We overcame it finally.”
O’Hara will face Niagara Catholic for the championship to open the title-game doubleheader that closes with the Class A final between Canisius and Park.
The upstart Patriots (16-8) ended St Mary’s (16-9) championship reign by taking a 67-60 decision. Freshman Jalen Bradberry led the winners with 22 points, while Hakim Siner scored 10 of his 18 in the fourth quarter as Niagara Catholic advanced to its second final in three years.
An estimated 900 attended the doubleheader.
O’Hara (14-10) swept the two-game regular-season series with St. Mary’s to earn the top seed for the playoffs and also swept Nichols (11-15). But the Vikings, who were trying to reach their fifth consecutive Manhattan Cup final, didn’t go quietly into the night. Trailing, 22-15, Nichols scored the final seven points of the second quarter to head into the intermission tied at 22. The Vikings rode that momentum early into the third as back-to-back treys from Aidan Horan and Chris Stineman gave them a 32-27 lead.
Then Benton went to work, scoring seven straight points, including a three that gave O’Hara the lead for good, 34-33, with 2:34 left in the quarter. Justin Hemphill followed with a hook shot and layup and Brandon Broadnax’s trey with one second left completed the burst for the Hawks.
Hemphill finished with 12 points while Cottman had 10 for O’Hara. Stineman led Nichols with 14 points.
“I’m the lone senior, I couldn’t lose to Nichols three years straight,” Benton said. “Impossible, I couldn’t do it again.”
It didn’t happen as the News’ sixth-ranked small school earned a date with eighth-ranked Niagara Catholic, a team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
Youth looked like it’d be served in a major way as the Patriots led 31-20 at halftime in the second semifinal. But St. Mary’s didn’t relent as senior Christian Szablewski willed his team all the way back. He scored 16 of his game-high 34 points during the seventh-ranked Lancers’ 23-point third quarter as the teams went into the final eight minutes tied at 43.
That set up a big finish in which the teams exchanged leads four times. Matt Ciezki’s contested 3 with 2:40 left tied it at 55-55 for St. Mary’s. Siner scored on a layup 22 seconds later to give Catholic the lead for good. He followed that with a traditional three-point play 18 seconds later and a putback by 5-foot-7 Jaemon Turner made it 62-56 with 51 seconds left.
“It was a tough battle,” said Patriots coach Giulio Colangelo. “We handled their run and stayed strong in the fourth quarter.”