The Niagara Falls boys basketball team does not have the same players, and it doesn't play the same way. But in the words of Tyrell Lynch, which echoed through the tunnels of the Glens Falls Civic Center Saturday evening: "We're back!"
Thanks to a 27-point effort by junior Jonathan Flynn and a classic clampdown on defense by the Wolverines, Niagara Falls will defend its state public school title today after surviving with a 50-48 win over Uniondale in the Class AA public school state semifinals before an estimated 3,000.
"At the beginning of the season we had a lot of people doubting us," said Lynch, a 6-foot-8 senior, who joins Flynn in playing in his third straight public school final. "But me and Johnny and the rest of the guys wanted to come back and prove that talent-wise we might not be on par to the team last year, but as heart and determination to win, we can be above them."
With the score tied at 45 and 3:19 to play, Flynn found Lynch for a three-point play. Lynch later tipped away an attempted Uniondale entry pass, which led to him finding Flynn for a layup and a 50-45 lead with 1:40 left. Uniondale cut the lead to 50-48, but Cliff Brown's running three-pointer at the buzzer hit the front of the rim.
Niagara Falls (21-4) will play Mount Vernon (21-5) for the state championship today at 2:45 p.m. in a matchup of the last two state Federation champions. It is also a rematch of the 2004 state public school final, in which Mount Vernon beat Falls, 56-46.
Niagara Falls beat Mount Vernon's Section I (Westchester County) rival, New Rochelle, in last year's public school final before winning the Federation crown, and it is still defending its titles despite the loss of five of last year's top seven players.
The Wolverines graduated Paul Harris (prep school before attending Syracuse next year), Robert Garrison (Connecticut), Greg Gamble (University at Buffalo) and James Starks (UB football).
The Wolverines dedicated their season to Miguel Respress, who died after an AAU game during the summer due to an enlarged heart; Respress was a 6-7 forward who would have been a senior this year.
That left Flynn and Lynch as the only two returning players on a smaller team that was forced to abandon the trademark man-to-man defense it played last year and go to zone.
Falls also got key input from two seniors who have been major contributors this season despite hardly playing last year -- 5-8 point guard Anthony Marshall (eight points, including two three-pointers in the first half) and 6-1 defensive stopper Kendall Davis.
Uniondale (18-5), champion of Section VIII (Long Island's Nassau County), was much bigger than Falls inside with 6-6 Steven Priestly (eight points), 6-5 leading scorer Lance Feurtado (20) and 6-3 James Merrill (13). But Lynch (eight points) and Davis were extremely active on defense in the second half, with Davis pestering Feurtado in the low left corner of Falls' zone.
The Drexel-bound Feurtado led Uniondale to leads of 15-11 after the first quarter and 33-27 at halftime, but he scored just two points in the second half.
Falls trailed, 39-32, in the third before an 11-2 run during which Flynn had nine points. Flynn closed the quarter with two drives that gave Falls a 43-41 lead.
"My jump shot was a little off today, so I went to the hole to try and get to the free-throw line," said Flynn, who was 11 for 23 from the field, 0 for 3 on three-pointers and 5 of 7 at the foul line.
Mount Vernon advanced by beating Christian Brothers Academy (23-4) of Albany, 66-47. The Knights were led by 18 points and eight rebounds from 6-7 Jonathan Mitchell, who will attend Florida next year and is this season's New York State Mr. Basketball.