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Blocked shot helps Park advance to title game

ALBANY – To foul or not to foul, that was the question facing Park coach Mike Battaglia with 1.6 seconds left in overtime.

When faced with the decision earlier, he opted not to foul – only to see Westhill star Jordan Roland force overtime with a fadeaway three. Would Battaglia order his Pioneers to grab whoever before the shot just to waste the precious second and change that remained? Was it even a consideration?

“We did” consider it, Battaglia said. “We did, and then decided not to. It worked out.”

That time it did, which means Park (22-3) has a chance to make some more history during a season that’s been one for the books for the tiny private school in Snyder.

Randy Golda blocked Roland’s second attempt at breaking the Pioneers’ hearts. Therefore, the state Catholic and Monsignor Martin Association Class B champions earned a shot at the Federation Tournament of Champions crown by edging defending champ Westhill, 56-55. It came before an estimated 600 at SEFCU Arena.

Kyle Harris sank two free throws after driving to the basket and drawing a foul with the Warriors nursing a one-point lead. And then came the moment of truth, again, with the Pioneers’ intentions clear before the inbounds. Junior star Jordan Nwora screamed “don’t foul.”

They didn’t. They protected the lead and will play upstart Maspeth High School, the New York City PSAL champion, at 4 p.m. Sunday for the championship. Maspeth, a program playing its first full season and fourth-year overall under coach Anastasia Bitis, improved to 24-1 by rallying from a 16-point halftime deficit to beat Dwight, 51-50.

“I was going to jump as high as I possibly could with my hands straight up in the air,” said Golda, a senior who missed the state Catholic final and had been hobbled by a stress fracture in his foot. “That’s what I was thinking the whole time. I wasn’t going to foul him, just jump straight up with my hands in the air.

“I feel blessed I was able to block it. We’re still alive. My whole team helped me do that. … Everybody out there helped me block.”

He’s got a point. Golda was not in that position to make the final defensive stop if not for Harris’ patient, daring dash to the basket as the seconds ticked down. When he drove the lane, he wasn’t looking to make the shot. He was looking for contact and got the call.

“I was trying to draw a foul because I know I’m a good foul shooter,” said Harris, who went 5 for 6 from the line and scored 10 of his 12 points after halftime. “This win means a lot but we still have another game. We’re going to try to get another ‘W.’ ”

Park didn’t look like it would need to work overtime for this win. It jumped out to a 31-21 halftime lead behind junior Jordan Nwora’s 18 points. Even when the Nwora shooting show went cold during the second half (0 for 7 after making 6 of 10 in the opening 16 minutes), the Pioneers led by as much as 12 and led by 10 after Harris’ three-pointer with 54 seconds left in the third quarter.

Then Westhill, the perennial Section III contender and New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association champion, pushed back in a major way. Brian Daily scored on back-to-back layups before the end of the quarter to trim the deficit to six. Then Roland, the George Washington recruit, canned a trey for the first basket of the fourth quarter. He scored on a putback to pull the Warriors within 41-40. Westhill finally surged ahead, 49-47, on Tyler Reynolds’ layup with 2:13 left. Harris tied it with a driving layup seconds later and then Golda’s layup gave Park the lead with 1:10 left. Harris added a free throw with 23 seconds left, setting the stage for the first dramatic conclusion.

To foul or not to foul with a three-point lead and fouls to give? The Pioneers didn’t and Roland, who for the most part had a poor day shooting (7 for 27), drained the game-tying shot with a hand in his face.

“We just had to focus on the next play,” Harris said.

The Pioneers did just that and are now one win away from championship glory.

“Sometimes you can be down after losing a lead like that but the kids played tough,” Battaglia said. “I told them today when we walked into this gym, to me this was heaven. And I thanked them. … I’m a doctor for God’s sake. To coach a basketball team in the Federation championship is unheard of.”