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Will South wins state crown

TROY – Brianna Neeley was a helpless spectator during last year’s playoffs – 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 and won it all?

One can’t live in the moment by being stuck in the past, so forgive Williamsville South for not thinking about that. The Billies are all about the moment right now. In fact, they want to bask in it for a while after achieving something no Section VI team has done since 1994.

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, the 5-foot-11 junior forward, 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 Lions as the only Section VI girls basketball teams to win a state title in Class A.

South becomes just the sixth Section VI girls basketball team to ever win a state championship.

“I love this feeling. I wish it could last forever,” said Neeley, who also grabbed nine rebounds and was selected to the all-tournament team. “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 moment’s unreal,” said senior Erin Egan, who finished with seven points, six rebounds and earned tournament MVP honors. She had 19 points and 13 boards in Friday’s semifinal win.

“We’ve worked so hard for this,” Egan said. “We pushed all season, we pushed each other to play our best basketball and today we just had fun and played for each other. Being able to pull it out is like one of the greatest feelings ever.”

Sharing the basketball and playing relentless defense have been South’s keys to success all season.

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 while committing just 15. The Billies also hung tough in the paint, finishing with more inside points than J-D (12-8) while only losing the rebounding battle 31-24.

“I have a great group of girls and we’re extremely talented,” said Dolan, whose team has won 25 in a row. “What got us here today was the way we believe in each other. … I said to the girls ‘what I need from you today is everything has to be a little better. We need to be quicker. We need to be stronger. We need to be faster. I need two or three more rebounds from everyone. I need tougher defense. You step up to this challenge, you be a little better today … and it’ll all happen.’ ”

It happened for Neeley, which was key for South 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 the Billies led at the break, 19-18.

She had seven of the team’s final nine points in the second quarter.

Neeley 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, 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 seconds left for the final margin.

“I knew I had to step up for her,” Emily, “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 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 sophomore 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 a 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 Egan closed it with a baseline layup.

Seven players scored for South, with Egan and McCullough finishing with seven points each.

The Billies return to action in the New York State Federation Tournament next weekend at the University at Albany. They will learn the time of their game and their opponent Monday.