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Three sectional titles give Yale Cup right to brag

For years Yale Cup coaches have said the Buffalo Public Schools boys basketball league is the best in Western New York.

They’ve earned the right to stick out their chests and talk proudly this weekend, even though the league’s best team, McKinley, is currently a spectator. That’s because for the first time since 1983, three Yale Cup schools have advanced to the Far West Regionals. Five Section VI champions and three are from the city league.

And I-Prep/Grover, Middle Early College and East also will try to keep another streak going for the Yale Cup when they square off against Rochester-area champions Saturday at Rush-Henrietta High School. A city team has reached the state Final Four seven out of the last eight seasons, including each year since 2010.

“We’ve always said the Yale Cup is probably the strongest league out there,” Middle College coach Randall Rich said. “It’s nice the kids get to represent their city and their school because they don’t get a lot of notice otherwise. Basketball doesn’t cost much. It’s a chance for urban kids and urban schools to shine.”

They will try to shine once more in a hostile venue as the action starts at noon with Class D champ I-Prep (18-4) meeting Prattsburgh (21-2). After that game is the Class C regional pitting Middle Early College (17-5) against Lyons (19-3). The Class B showdown at 4 p.m. features East (15-9) against Leadership Academy (20-3).

“It’s great that the city has been this successful,” Grover coach Shaunessy Ryan said. “It just shows you the hard work of the kids, coaches and the administrators to help these kids stay eligible, work in school and on the court. This is the payoff.”

The Class AA and A regional games take place at Gates-Chili as Blue Cross Arena, the normal home for regionals whenever Rochester is the host, is unavailable Saturday night.

Both Section VI teams will head into the games as underdogs against unbeaten foes. Williamsville South (21-2) faces Greece Athena (22-0) at 7:15 p.m. in Class A, while last year’s state runner-up Jamestown (19-3) meets Aquinas (21-0) at 9 p.m.

“I think I’m more nervous in these games than they are,” Red Raiders coach Ben Drake said of his three-time Section VI Class AA champions. “I have a lot of guys who have played in some of the biggest games New York State has to offer between football and basketball. They’ve played in both the state championship game in football and basketball so I know we’re not going to be intimidated.”

While the public schools look to earn coveted trips to Glens Falls, the News’ two No. 1-ranked teams yearn to return home as state Catholic champions.

Top large school Canisius (22-5) plays Kennedy Catholic (26-1) for the Class A championship at Fordham. That game follows the 1 p.m. Class B final between No. 1 small school Park (20-3) and defending champion Regis (16-9). Catholic champions advance to the Federation Tournament of Champions in Albany in two weeks.

Far West Regionals, Class D

The Yale Cup trio has shown during the playoffs that they are adaptable. Usually city-league games are played at a fast pace. That changes in the playoffs where possessions are limited and more valuable, unless the matchup happens to be against a team that also likes to push the envelope.

I-Prep proved to itself in beating defending Section VI champion Sherman for the title last week that it can play and beat a team that relies on disciplined offensive and defensive approaches.

“We have the confidence to play anybody now after beating a team like Sherman,” said Ryan.

It also helps being the only Class D school in the league, which means I-Prep gets ready for the playoffs by playing bigger schools all season.

The Presidents also have some quality players with senior Xavier Maye leading them in scoring (18.0) and rebounding (11 per game).“He’s just tough to deal with,” Ryan said. “The strength in his legs, people can’t move him.”

Prattsburgh’s top scorer is Garrett Socola.

Class C

This is the fourth time in six years Middle College has reached the regional round, but there’s a first associated with it that has Rich rather excited. This time he gets to cheer for one of his mentors, East coach Starling Bryant, as well as his own team.

“It’s really cool this year because Starling and I haven’t been this far together since 2001 when I was his assistant coach” at Traditional, Rich said.

If MEC wants to advance to its fourth state semifinal, it must come up with a way to stop sizzling guard Damon Hunter, who has averaged 33 points per game during the playoffs for Lyons. He’s scored at least 30 in each of the Lions’ five playoff games.“He’s been playing very well,” Rich said. “If we play our best defensive game and play offensively the way we have been I think we can beat them.”

If Fred Foster can deliver another strong playoff performance, the Kats will be hard to beat. He’s averaging 18 points and 12 boards and is coming off a 20-point effort in the overall Class C final win over Tapestry – a contest in which he had three monster dunks, including a one-handed jam in the second quarter that sparked the run that enabled Middle College to pull away.

Joseph Staton (17.2 ppg), a member of last year’s team that advanced to Glens Falls, is one of four Kats capable of getting at least 20 points.

Class B

East returns to the regional for the first time since 2011 and is kind of familiar with Leadership Academy. The Panthers beat the charter school last season and have kept tabs on them this year.

Coach Bryant, the Yale Cup’s all-time winningest coach, said his team will need to play very disciplined and flawless in order to return to Glens Falls for the first time since 2008.

Leadership’s top player is DeVante Hagins. He’s a solid all-around player. He, along with Keith McGee and Shabazz Mosley are deadly from three-point range and can play above rim.

“If we miss free throws and can’t keep them off the boards, it’ll be a long day,” Bryant said.

Bryant, the Yale Cup’s all-time winningest coach, is happy with the city schools’ representation in regionals – especially at a time when charter schools are building up their athletic programs and competing for student-athletes with public schools.

Percy Bryant, no relation to the coach, has been competing hard for the Panthers and enters his first regional averaging 22.5 points, 4.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

The key could be the inside play of Damone Brown Jr. (13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and big man Jovell Littlejohn (8.3 rpg, 7.1 ppg).

Class A

This is Williamsville South’s second trip to regionals, first as a road team. If the Billies want to reach Glens Falls, they must find a way to slow down 6-7 Anthony Lamb of Greece Athena.

The junior double-double machine has offers from three of the Big 4 schools (Niagara, UB and Canisius) along with a host of other mid-majors, according to

Zac DiSalvo can also get hot from outside but the Trojans will be without point guard Jay Sarkis (broken arm).

“They really want to outscore you. The real difference for them is that big kid,” South coach Gabe Michael said. “Everyone is going to have to play a role and stop him. It can’t just be one guy.

“We have to rebound, we have to keep them off the boards and we have to take care of the basketball. We can’t give them free points, layups.”

Senior Sam Castronova leads the Billies in scoring (15.7 ppg) followed by freshman Greg Dolan (13.0 ppg, 5.1 apg).

Class AA

This may be the most interesting matchup of the day. Aquinas is a deep, talented team that likes to run. The Little Irish share the ball well as they have seven averaging 6.0 points or more per game led by Melvin Grayson’s 11.5 average. In the Section V final, D.J. Roberts led Aquinas with 16 points.

Jamestown has a roster filled with winners whether it’s from last year’s state runner-up or last fall’s state football championship team. Big-game experience is a nice intangible and something the Red Raiders can be a difference-maker.

They also have a pretty talented roster, led by seniors Zack Panebianco (20.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3 apg, 2.5 steals) and Stephen Carlson (14.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Others have stepped up as teams have come up with ways of slowing down Panebianco, who still has found ways to impact the game even with teams keeping him under his scoring average. Zacc Kinsey scored nearly double his season average in the sectional semifinal win over Lancaster.

Ben Larson and James Rojas also are outside threats that could be useful against a team that likes to bring the pressure.

“We’re going to have to take care of the ball and handle their pressure well,” Drake said. “Defensively, we’re going to have to defend the three-point arc and rebound well.”

They’re a very good shooting team and they’re also a very good offensive rebounding team.”

State Catholic finals

In Class B, Park’s attitude heading into its clash with Regis is simple.

“I think we have to play tougher,” Pioneers coach Mike Battaglia said. “We have to block out and rebound and trust each other on offense. If we do those things we have a chance.”

Trust on offense is something that should come somewhat easy for a Park crew that drained 10 three-pointers in the Monsignor Martin Association Class B final against St. Mary’s. Jordan Nwora leads the Pioneers in scoring (24.0 ppg) and averages 9.0 rebounds per game.

Senior Derek Cheatom (14 ppg) also is averaging near a double-double, while Kyle Harris is another outside threat. Hunter Anderson can shoot the three and has an endless motor.

Senior Randy Golda is day-to-day with a lower body injury so he will be a game-time decision, according to Battaglia.

In Class A, Canisius has never won the state Catholic title in this classification. The Crusaders have won at the Class B and C levels.

If they’re going to make history, coach Kyle Husband said they are going to have to do the little things well that help determine the outcome, from winning 50-50 battles for loose balls to boxing out against a tall front line.

LaTerrance Reed and Stafford Trueheart both average around 17 ppg for Canisius, which doesn’t need to use the success of the school’s state championship football and hockey teams as extra motivation for winning Saturday. “We want to win it for our basketball program, but more so than anything we want to win it for each other,” Husband said.