HENRIETTA – At the end of each Far West Regional game at Rush-Henrietta High School, the public address announcer reminds the teams and the fans that each combatant in the game came in as a champion and leaves as a champion.
That may be true, but it may take awhile for East to realize that.
Winning the Section VI championship was a goal, but the Panthers came up short of reaching their ultimate one. The frustrating part about that was they controlled their own destiny down the stretch Saturday.
East’s quest of reaching the state semifinals for the first time since 2008 is finished as it dropped a tough-to-swallow 57-55 decision to Section V champion Leadership Academy. An estimated 1,200 fans watched as the Panthers (15-10) missed four free throws and a tough potential game-tying layup with 27 seconds left while trailing by two.
If something falls, who knows?
“Frustrating,” said East senior Percy Bryant, who struggled from the floor but still led his side with 17 points on 7-of-22 shooting. “We went through free throws the whole week in practice.”
Malik Doughty added 10 points for East, and Jovell Littlejohn had 12 boards and four points.
It could’ve been six points if the basketball gods had smiled on the Panthers and Littlejohn. He had a potential game-tying put-back rim out as he was fouled with 1:17 left and East trailing 54-52. Then he missed the two free throws.
“I’m thinking and one and then it came out,” the 6-foot-8 Littlejohn said, dejectedly. “The first free throw I thought I had it and it just came out. The second one, I don’t know …
“It’s real frustrating. It was the little things that made us lose.”
Free throws and finishing near the basket as the Panthers shot 34.4 percent.
Damone Brown, who fouled out and finished with eight points, had a couple of chances to tie it after Littlejohn’s missed free throws. He, too, discovered the iron was unkind as he missed two foul shots and then had a contested layup in transition hit the front of the rim before picking up his fifth foul with 25 seconds left.
Still, East trailed 54-52 when Devante Hagins picked off a pass at the defensive end and raced down court for the jam and the foul. He made the free throw to push the Lions’ lead up to five with 13.7 seconds left.
East, which overcame struggles during the season to win their third straight Section VI Class B-2 title and fifth sectional crown in six seasons, didn’t go away.
DaQuan Williams sank a trey to pull East within two with 7 seconds left. The Panthers had further hopes of pulling off the miracle as Hagins missed both free throws with 5 seconds left. However, an outlet pass to Bryant was slightly out of his reach. Although he kind of tracked it down, all he could do was throw up a wild shot that didn’t come close before the final horn sounded.
East weathered an early storm from hot-shooting Keith McGee of Leadership. He scored 21 of his game-high 26 points during a first half in which he canned 7 of 9 shots from the floor, including 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. He cooled during the second half, finishing 9 for 18 from the floor and 1 for 4 from the line.
The game was tied 17-17 after one, but the Lions (20-3) rode McGee’s hot hand and Shabazz Mosley’s inside play to take a 37-25 lead into halftime. Leadership used an 18-5 run to turn a 20-19 deficit into a lead it never relinquished during the final 5:12 of the first half. McGee (nine) and Mosley combined for 15 of those points.
East prevented a major pull away and gave itself a fighting chance to win as it trailed 50-40 after three quarters.
The Panthers clawed their way back, with Bryant scoring seven points. But they failed to seize a game there for the taking.
“Frustrating,” said Bryant.
Frustrating, indeed, as Leadership will play Section III champion Westhill in the state semifinals on Friday.
“The goal was to get to Glens Falls and hopefully win a state championship,” said East’s Starling Bryant, the Yale Cup’s winningest coach. “Game on the line we missed four free throws and had an untimely turnover there at the end. You can’t have those miscues against a team like that, but it was a great season. I’m proud of the guys.”