There is something about the state Federation tournament that brings out the best in Nichols. And there's something about big games that brings out the best in Jim Pieri.
The Vikings will play for an unprecedented fourth Federation championship today thanks to Pieri, who struck for 28 points in a 65-58 victory over Peekskill of Poughkeepsie in the Class C semifinal Saturday night at the Civic Center.
Nichols (21-4), Class C champions of the Alliance of Independent Schools, will face Catholic champ Sacred Heart of Yonkers for the overall state title at 3 p.m. today.
"In situations like this, the ball is supposed to be in my hands," said Pieri, who hit on 11 of 22 shots and added six rebounds. "I'm one of the guys who can finish on the break and make the big shots."
Indeed, Pieri was never better than in the final minutes with the game on the line.
After Peekskill took a 54-53 lead on two free throws by Elton Brand, Pieri scored eight straight points to cap a 10-2 run and give Nichols a 63-56 lead with 2:05 remaining in the contest.
"He's done that all year," Nichols coach Jim Kramer said of his 6-foot-1 senior guard. "He's made big shots all year and he's going to be a terrific collegiate player somewhere."
Perhaps the happiest Nichols player is Randie Torgalski. The senior point guard watched brothers Ron and Rich take home consecutive titles in 1985 and 1986.
"When we found out we were coming here, they had left messages on the answering machine," said Randie, who had eight assists and handled Peekskill's pressure defense all night. "After the game, I ran over to Rob, who didn't play here, and Ronnie to give them high fives. They were more excited than I was."
Peekskill (23-4) beat Traditional for the public school championship last week, but there was something different about the team this week.
The Devils were without their large throng of supporters, including famous alum Gov. Pataki. Even more important was the absence of 6-6 power forward Laron Bailey, who was suspended for disciplinary reasons.
"We didn't come out expecting there would be a letdown," Peekskill coach Lou Panzanaro said. "We did not have the intensity that we're used to at first and I would have to say a large part of that was due to Laron's absence."
Without Bailey to occupy defenders, Nichols collapsed inside on Brand. The 6-7 junior, who scored 31 points against Traditional, had 18 on Saturday but was scoreless in the first half when the Vikings built a 37-29 lead.
"We were really worried about Brand," Kramer said. "We didn't know that Bailey wasn't playing until game time. That helped, immensely. We tried to keep (Brand) off the block. But he played his way back in the game."
Brand, rated among the nation's best underclassmen, gave Nichols problems in the second half.
Brand scored eight third-quarter points, including a highlight reel dunk over Nichols' 6-8 center Bill Ewing, to rally Peekskill to a 43-42 lead at the end of the quarter.
Nichols didn't help its cause by going without a field goal in the third quarter until Torgalski hit a three-pointer with 2:18 left.
"I thought we had them at that point," said guard Derrick Robillard, who kept the Devils close in the first half with 15 of his 20 points. "We went to a triangle and two to try and slow Pieri down, but we just couldn't stop him."
There were six lead changes in the final quarter until Ewing, who finished with 16 points, made a layup to put Nichols ahead for good, 55-54.
Then Pieri took over with two jumpers, a driving layup and a floater along the baseline to give the Vikings a seven-point advantage.
Nichols gave Peekskill some chances in the final two minutes by missing three front ends of one-and-ones, but Torgalski blocked Robillard's short jumper in the lane. The Vikings then forced two other long-range shots that missed the mark.
Ewing's two free throws closed the scoring with 47 seconds left.
"We almost let them back in it, but we held on," Pieri said. "We found a way to win."