ALBANY — As they did throughout this landmark season, the Cardinal O’Hara Hawks wore down their opponent Sunday afternoon.
Then they fast-breaked through the finish line, right into history.
The Hawks completed one of the finest seasons ever for a Western New York girls basketball team with a 22-4 fourth quarter and a 76-47 victory over Martin Luther King, the New York City Public Schools champion in the Class A championship game at the Federation Tournament of Champions at the Times Union Center.
Cardinal O’Hara’s first Federation title is the first for a Western New York girls team since 1997, just the second local title in a large-school classification, and WNY’s sixth girls Federation title overall.
“Amazing. Unexplainable,” said senior Keyonte Edwards, who earned tournament MVP honors with 16 points, 16 rebounds and four steals. “We made history.”
This season, Cardinal O’Hara was promoted from Class B — where it had won the last two New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association titles — to Class A after returning several key players and welcoming senior standout Jontay Walton from Holy Angels after that school closed.
The Hawks (27-3) went undefeated against local teams, held the No. 1 spot in The News large school poll all year, won the school’s first Monsignor Martin Association championship, then earned a third straight Federation trip by becoming the first Monsignor Martin team to win the NYSCHSAA title in Class A.
At the Federation, which determines an overall state champion by bringing together the winners of up to four state associations, O’Hara beat New York State Public High School Athletic Association champion Pittsford-Sutherland in Friday’s semifinals before dominating the second half against MLK on Sunday.
“Five, six, seven years ago, you wouldn’t have thought this was even possible,” said O’Hara coach Dan McDermott, who took over as coach in 1999. “When you start coaching, many many years ago, this is in your dreams. This is the ultimate. For this group, the girls, the support we got from parents and everything else, it’s just been unreal. It’s been like a dream come true.”
On Sunday, the Hawks had four double-figure scorers as they steadily increased their lead. O’Hara went on a 6-0 run to end the second quarter for a 34-26 halftime advantage against MLK (23-1), which went undefeated in the New York City PSAL, which included winning a 32-team playoff bracket.
The Hawks’ pressure defense and balanced scoring were on display throughout the second half. Freshman Anddea Zeigler (14 points off the bench) scored seven points while the Hawks had several steals during a 10-0 third-quarter run that put them up, 49-32.
“We knew we had to still push it, we saw that they were running out of gas in the third and fourth quarter, and that’s how we beat teams,” said Walton. “We keep pushing and pushing, and they were getting tired. They just kept getting turnovers, and we capitalized on those plays.”
MLK contained O’Hara’s lead to 11 (54-43) after three quarters, but Walton (20 points, six steals) had six points during an 8-0 run to start the fourth to put O’Hara up, 62-43. Walton went on to add two straight assists on fast-break finishes by 6-foot-2 senior Kelsey McCarthy (15 points, nine rebounds) as O’Hara pushed its lead past 20.
“It’s just the best team you could ever ask for,” said McCarthy.
Senior Jailyn Dickson had four steals and four assists, senior Aisha Shabazz had two steals and four assists, and freshman Corean Dickson had seven points, three assists and two steals for O’Hara, which totaled 24 steals and forced 38 MLK turnovers. Walton, McCarthy and Zeigler were named to the all-tournament team.
“It’s been four, five, six kids in double figures almost every game and this was much the same,” said McDermott, who emphatically shared the credit with assistants Nick O’Neil and son Matt McDermott. “There have been sacrifices made all around, sacrificing for the good of the team. We keep talking about for the good of the team, playing team ball, and that’s what’s it’s all about. This team is the ultimate example of how that works.”
O’Hara is the first local girls team to win a Federation title since the current three-class (AA, A and B) format was adopted in 2004. The only other time a Western New York school won a Federation title in a large-school classification was also the last time that a local team won a Fed title – in 1997, when by Holy Angels won Class B in the state’s four-class setup (A, B, C, D).
“From the beginning of the year, we set our goal: we wanted to win this Federation championship,” said Walton, the Monsignor Martin Association’s all-time leading scorer (2,043 points). “That’s what we said, and we did it. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, especially the seniors — Kelsey, Aisha, Jailyn, Keyonte, and our two big freshman, Anddea and Cory. And our bench players, without them this wouldn’t have happened. We had fun along the way and we worked really hard. It was a team effort.”