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O'Hara tops Sacred Heart; Hawks' O'Neil plans to step down

The beat goes on and on for the Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball team, but it may be coming to an end for their coach, Nick O’Neil.

The Hawks won the Class A title of the Msgr. Martin Athletic Association for the fifth straight year on Saturday night. They beat Sacred Heart, 62-46, at Villa Maria in Cheektowaga. It’s the longest such run in the MMAA since Holy Angels won six straight from 1988 to 1993.

The game was Cardinal O’Hara’s 89th straight win over competition from Western New York. It looks as if future wins will be credited to some other coach, as O’Neil said after the game he expects to step down from the position after the current season.

“This one was a special one for me, because it’s probably my last season for coaching this basketball team,” he said. “This (championship) means the most.”

O’Neil has been the head coach of the Hawks since 2014, when he took over for Dan McDermott. O’Neil said he wanted to leave when his successor still would have some talent on the roster.

“I thought about it going through the year, the close games and all that,” he said. “It’s an incredible thing for a team, when everyone comes out gunning for you every game, and you get everybody’s best in every game, and we still come out on top.”

The Hawks certainly faced a team that was ready to try to end the long O’Hara win streak against local teams. The Sharks hit some shots and took good care of the basketball in the early going. They had a surprise 18-11 lead with two minutes gone in the second quarter.

“I told the girls before, they know they are already going to a playoff game,” said O’Neil, as both Cardinal O’Hara and Sacred Heart had qualified for a trip to New York next week to play in the Catholic state championships. “I said, ‘They have nothing to lose. They’re going to come out and play a very good game.’ That’s exactly what they did in the first half.”

The Hawks ran off nine straight points in a little more than three minutes to take the lead, but Sacred Heart remained competitive through the opening 16 minutes. The Sharks trailed by only three points at halftime, and an upset seemed possible.

“The first half played out the way we prepared for the game, the way we thought we could play all along,” Sacred Heart coach Carrie Owens said. “We handled their pressure. We had a couple of press-breakers to stifle them, and they worked. We did have some turnovers that led to their scores. It was 30-27 at the half, and I was pleased with that.”

Then the third quarter started, and everything changed. Cardinal O’Hara ran off the first 18 points of the period, with six players scoring. The Hawks’ defensive pressure jumped by a couple of notches, as sometimes it looked as if they had seven players on the court.

“I was thinking, we needed to speed up,” Cardinal O’Hara’s Angel Parker said about her halftime thoughts. “We knew they would come in and play well. We had to come more prepared. In the locker room we were like, we’ve got to pick it up.”

Owens added, “In the third quarter, they turned it up. They really did. Instead of our girls responding like they did in the first half, we fell back. We got away from our game plan. We continued to turn the ball over, and our turnovers created more offense for them.”

After that 22-4 third quarter, it was just a matter of running out the clock for Cardinal O’Hara. Parker turned in a typically excellent performance, leading the team with 18 points. She often split the Sharks’ defense to score easy layups.

“I can’t say enough about Angel Parker,” O’Neil said. “She’s been sick, real sick the last two weeks – in and out of the hospital. For a kid to come out and play like this for two weeks, that’s why I say she’s the best player in Western New York.”

Micaela Ryan led Sacred Heart with 14 points, while Siobhan Ryan added 13.

Both teams now head to New York City. They will play in separate divisions of the state finals, starting on Friday night. The Sharks are happy to keep playing despite the loss.

“It is weird,” Owens said. “It’s hard to motivate the girls. They know they are going on to States. So I said, no one really knows what you guys will go in states. But here you have an opportunity to make history. They were well on their way. … Again, we do continue to play in States in Class A, and I think we will do well there.”

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