TROY – The Williamsville South girls basketball team is one win away from becoming the latest program at its school to cap its season with a New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship.
The Billies’ season-long formula for success, teamwork and sharing the ball was on full display before an estimated 1,000 Friday afternoon at Hudson Valley Community College – from Lauren Lassiter’s timely three-point shooting to Emily Smith’s dogged two-way play to Zaria McCullough’s clutch play down the stretch.
Williamsville South earned a shot at the title by holding off Section VIII champion North Shore (L.I.), 73-69, during the teams’ thoroughly entertaining Class A semifinal. Senior Erin Egan recorded 19 points and 13 rebounds as she was one of four South players to score in double figures.
But McCullough did the heavy lifting late, as she rediscovered her shooting touch when it mattered most to extend the best season in the history of Billies basketball one more game. She scored nine of her 10 points during the final 2 minutes, 7 seconds, as her three-pointer broke a 62-62 tie and sparked South’s closing 11-7 run.
“I know we just didn’t want to be here to be here,” said McCullough, who also grabbed six rebounds, made two steals and had two assists. “We wanted to be here to win, and to play tomorrow is an honor. I just wanted to help my team get there. … I just needed to close out those free throws and I knew we’d be OK.”
McCullough closed out the Vikings as she went 6 for 6 from the line during the final 34.4 seconds to secure South’s spot in the final, where it will face Section III champion Jamesville-DeWitt. J-D advanced by crushing Section I’s Albertus Magnus, 56-33, as it held the Lady Falcons to just 11 second-half points after taking a 28-22 lead into the break.
Will South’s softball team won a state title last June and its volleyball team did the same in November.
This will be the first basketball championship game appearance by both schools, with the Billies toting a 24-game winning streak.
“I’m just thrilled for the girls and so proud of them,” winning coach Kristen Dolan said. “It’s exciting.”
”It’s unbelievable,” said South senior Grace Licata, who finished with nine points and received a big surprise when older brother and South alumnus Joe cut short his spring break to witness the biggest game in his sister’s life. “I didn’t think this day would come. … It’s a dream come true. It’s my best friends. It’s the greatest team around. It’s amazing.”
McCullough’s finish was amazing, considering she missed her first six field-goal attempts. She calmly received a pass and stepped into her go-ahead three-pointer after some nice ball movement by the Billies. Brianna Neeley, who finished with eight points, followed with a layup to make it a five-point game, and North Shore didn’t get any closer than three the rest of the way.
South, which is participating in its first state final four, trailed most of the first half but took a 32-31 lead into the intermission as a trey by Lassiter and two free throws from Smith capped a 5-0 run.
Lassiter had a starring role in the third quarter for the Billies. She drained three three-pointers during the third quarter to help South increase its cushion to nine points. While that’s as big of a lead as the Billies had, her contributions provided a jolt of confidence that helped South (24-1) push back whenever the Vikings (19-3) threatened to take control.
Lassiter finished with 12 points, one of four players to reach double figures for Williamsville South. Smith had 13 and was a pest on defense, making four steals.
“We know one player just can’t win the game, so we go through everybody” McCullough said. “We need everybody to touch the ball. We need everybody to shoot it.”
Division I-commit Alexandra Cantwell took game scoring honors with 26 for North Shore. She will continue her career at Lafayette of the Patriot League.
“There’s no way to describe this feeling,” Egan said. “It’s just amazing.”