TROY – Last year during the playoffs, Brianna Neeley was a helpless spectator – sitting out Williamsville South’s sectional title run with a knee injury.
Who knows what the Billies could have done with her in the lineup then? Perhaps they could’ve made the trip to the state final four? Maybe they could’ve won it all?
One can’t live in the moment by being stuck in the past, so forgive Williamsville South for not wondering about that. South definitely wants to live in the moment. It wants to soak it all in as long as possible after achieving something no Section VI team has done in more than 20 years.
The Billies (25-1) earned their first New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class A girls basketball championship Saturday night by beating a tough Jamesville-DeWitt crew, 48-39, before an estimated 1,000 at Hudson Valley Community College’s Edward F. McDonough Sports Complex.
Neeley scored 12 of her game-high 22 points during the first half but more importantly scored South’s final seven points and secured a key defensive rebound as the Billies joined the 1994 Lockport Lady Lions as the only Section VI girls basketball programs to win a state title in Class A. South becomes just the sixth Section VI program to ever win a state championship.
“I love this feeling. I wish it could last forever,” said Neeley, who also grabbed nine rebounds. “Sitting through last season was so difficult. Coming into this season I’ve played with all these girls before. … We knew we could make it this far and here we are.”
The Billies’ key for success all season long isn’t a secret. They rely on sharing the basketball and playing relentless defense.
Still, coach Kristen Dolan was a little worried after watching Jamesville-DeWitt (21-6) hold a good Albertus Magnus team to just 11 second-half points in a 56-33 semifinal win Friday.
Would South be able to deal with the Red Rams’ thick-bodied players? Were the Billies athletically up to the challenge of speeding up the game and making J-D uncomfortable with their signature trapping defense?
A resounding yes is the answer to all those questions as South forced 21 turnovers and hung tough in the paint, only losing the rebounding battle 31-24. The Billies finished with more inside points than J-D (12-8) as they increased their winning streak to 25 games.
Neeley had plenty to give and did so willingly, especially with senior Emily Smith in foul trouble most of the day. During a first half in which points were hard to come by, Neeley found ways to score in the paint and even canned a three-pointer as South led at the break, 19-18. She had seven of the team’s final nine points in the second quarter.
She delivered the final push back after J-D pulled within 41-39 on Kasey Vaughan’s three with 2:01 left. After South misfired on offense, she made a steal under the Red Rams’ basket and converted the layup while drawing a foul. She made the free throw to complete the three-point play with 1:21 left, and then drained a long two-pointer after a J-D turnover to make it 46-39 with 54.2 left. She grabbed the rebound of a Rams miss before hitting two more free throws with 37.1 left for the final margin.
“I knew I had to step up for her and step for the team,” Neeley said. “Most of the film they see the shooters and have to step up and heavily guard them leaving me more open. I just had more opportunities and just had to finish them for my team.”
“Her stepping up today was great and was exactly what we needed,” said Zaria McCullough.
Dolan asked more of her team on defense during the first two minutes of the third quarter and it listened, delivering a 9-0 run that sapped some of the life out of young J-D team that suited up just two seniors. McCullough, who scored nine of South’s final 11 points during Friday’s nail-biting semifinal win over North Shore, sparked the run with a three-pointer and followed that with another jumper. Nina Ragland drained another jumper and then tournament MVP Erin Egan closed it with a baseline layup.
Seven players total scored for South, with Egan and McCullough adding seven points each.
The Billies return to action in the New York State Federation Tournament next weekend at SUNY Albany. They will learn of their opponent Monday.
Until then, there’s no reason to stop celebrating.
“This is the most amazing feeling in the world,” McCullough said. “These girls are like my sisters. It’s the best feeling in the world to win a state championship.”