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Lackawanna victory backs up title talk

In the final minutes of every Lackawanna basketball victory in the last 19 years, former Lackawanna math teacher Mike Sanders stands up in the bleachers, cups his hand over his mouth and yells: "Hey cheerleaders, who are we!?"

"Steelers!" they chant back.

"What are we?!"

"Number one!"

Now the Steelers have the trophy to prove it.

Lackawanna has been ranked first in the state at different times this year, and Saturday night the Steelers backed it up by routing Westchester County's John F. Kennedy, 67-50, for the state public school Class B championship. The Steelers (26-1) used an all-court attack to win their first state basketball title since 1979 before an estimated 1,500 at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

"It's awesome. It's a dream come true," said coach Tim Foley. "I'm just so happy for the kids, for my coaching staff who works so hard [assistants Mike Morris, Mike Popek and Dennis Schimpf]. From the first day of practice, this is what our goal was. I can't
say enough about these kids."

Lackawanna led for most of the game, using its pressure defense to gain a 29-20 third-quarter edge and a 14-point lead (53-39) heading to the fourth. Marcus Rivers continually sank NBA-range three-pointers (six of them) during a 25-point night while every rebound seemed to end up in the hands of Lackawanna, notably seniors Lesean Braxton (20 points, 10 rebounds) and 6-foot-9 Steve Kozaczka (14 points, 15 rebounds, two blocks).

"This is amazing," said Braxton. "It's an honor. Everybody played hard. We knew what we had to do to win, and we did it. It means everything. Twenty-seven years? It means everything."

Braxton, a 6-2 forward, earned tournament MVP honors while junior forward Rivers earned a spot on the all-tournament team and Kozaczka received the sportsmanship award.

Rivers was outstanding, grabbing six rebounds and going 5 for 7 at the line while handling the point guard duties most of the night with junior LeShawn Blackburn in foul trouble.

Lackawanna took control of the game with its 29-20 third quarter, scoring more points in the quarter than it had at halftime (when it led, 24-19). The Steelers broke it open by turning up the full-court pressure on John F. Kennedy (23-4), a Catholic school located in the town of Somers that was making its third straight trip to final four after winning the title in 2004.

The Steelers pushed their 24-19 lead to double digits (35-22) in the first three minutes of the third, punctuated by a three-point play by Braxton off a pass from Curtis Underwood. Rivers had two of his three-pointers in the quarter.

Lackawanna flirted with a 20-point lead the entire fourth quarter, which included two two-handed dunks by Kozaczka off dishes from Russell Holt and Blackburn. The second came with 1:10 to go, and soon Sanders was yelling to the cheerleaders from the arena stands.

Lackawanna will return here next weekend for the Federation championships, which bring together the state's public, Catholic and independent champions along with the winner of New York City's Public Schools Athletic League. The Steelers will play Catholic state champion Blessed Sacrament of New Rochelle in the Federation semifinals at 3:15 p.m. Friday.

Lackawanna was seeking its first title since when 17-year coach Bill Bilowus' Steelers won the Class AA championship. Bilowus was inducted into the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame here last year. Joe Foley, Tim's father, was Bilowus' assistant for 14 years.
e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com1

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