The Niagara Falls boys basketball team wasn't expected to be back in the state championship game this season. It sure wasn't expected to be leading Mount Vernon with less than two minutes to play, either.
It took a true most-valuable-player performance from the state's Mr. Basketball and an inspiring game from another senior from mighty Mount Vernon as the Knights scored the last eight points of the game to finally dethrone Falls, 57-53, Sunday afternoon in the state public school Class AA final.
An estimated 2,000 at the Glens Falls Civic Center watched Jonathan Mitchell, who won the state's top individual basketball honor and will play at Florida next year, score five of his 32 points during the 8-0 run that secured the Knights' seventh state public school title and third in the last seven years. The other basket was scored by Danilio Hutchinson, a 6-foot-3 senior who made several big plays while hobbling on an injured left knee.
Niagara Falls (21-5) was fittingly led by the only two players returning from last year's Federation championship team. Jonathan Flynn, a 6-foot junior, had 20 points on 7-of-19 shooting (0 for 7 from three-point range) while often swarmed by the Knights' tough defense. Tyrell Lynch, a 6-8 senior, had 14 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks as the only non-guard on the floor for Falls against taller Mount Vernon (22-5).
"I never expected to be in the position we were in to win it again with two minutes to go -- if someone had told me that, [I'd say] 'You're just dreaming,' " said Niagara Falls coach Dan Bazzani, who said before the season that this would be his last year coaching, but he did not want to discuss his status after the game. "I'm as proud of this group as any. They just hung in there. That's a very talented team and we gave them all they could handle."
Niagara Falls repeatedly dug itself out of holes created by Mount Vernon's full-court pressure and Mitchell's dominating game: he hit a three-pointer and several soft jumpers during his 12-of-23 performance and also hit 7 of 8 free throws.
Falls was down, 9-0, to start, trailed by 11 at halftime (31-20) and later in the third before closing the third quarter with a 9-0 run to close within 45-43. Falls took its first lead of the game at 49-47 with 6:21 left when Lynch hit a bank shot in traffic while being fouled by Mitchell. A Lynch follow-up of a fast-break miss by Rashon Tabb put Falls' lead at 53-49 with 3:40 to play.
But Falls wouldn't score again. Mitchell scored at 3:21 after a wonderful up-and-under bank shot while being fouled by Lynch, whose vigorous post defense helped keep Mitchell scoreless the previous 4:30.
Hutchinson, who was twice helped off the court and was screaming in pain due to his knee injury, scored on a putback to tie the game at 53 with 1:37 to play. After Flynn missed an NBA-range three-pointer, Mitchell hit two foul shots with 26.9 seconds left to put Mount Vernon up, 55-53.
Mitchell and Hutchinson then forced a Falls turnover at midcourt. Standout junior point guard Michael Coburn (four points, five assists) missed all 16 of his field goal attempts, but he hit two free throws with 26.9 seconds left to give the Knights a 57-53 lead.
"It hurts," said Flynn. "I'm proud of our team, fighting back after being down 11. We were just that close."