Here’s another example of just how looks can be deceiving.
Jamestown junior James Rojas seemed like a duck on the pond, calm as can be at the free-throw line with a one-and-one chance with 4.8 seconds to go with the game on the line during Tuesday night’s electric Section VI Class AA semifinal at Buffalo State Sports Arena.
He admits he “was pretty nervous” that whole time, a wait extended by the use of a timeout by Williamsville North.
The 6-foot-5 junior played it off, calmly sinking both free throws to turn a one-point deficit into the 45-44 triumph that broke the Spartans’ collective hearts.
An estimated crowd of more than 1,200 watched as Williamsville North completed a rally from a 13-point deficit through three quarters to take its only lead of the game with 8 seconds left on Connor Kelly’s putback.
But a Jamestown program making its 16th semifinal appearance in coach Ben Drake’s 18 seasons didn’t panic. Rojas attacked the basket and while it was ruled he was fouled before attempting the shot, the contact at least resulted in a one-and-bonus to keep the season alive. Rojas, a returnee from last year’s Zach Panebianco-led championship outfit, didn’t disappoint with the game resting on his shoulders.
“I knew I could knock them down,” said Rojas, who scored nine of his team-high 15 points during a first half in which the Red Raiders bolted to a 25-14 lead at the intermission. “We just want to keep this going, keep our title.”
In order to do that, Jamestown (17-5) will have to once again get through old friend Niagara Falls. The top-seeded Wolverines (17-5) cruised into Saturday night’s championship game with a 55-36 win over fourth-seeded Lancaster.
This marks the 11th time the teams have met in a sectional final, with Falls owning a 7-3 edge. However, Jamestown has won the past three Class AA titles, including wins over the Wolverines in the 2013 and 2015 finals.
“They’re a very good team,” said Drake, whose program has won five titles the past six seasons. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
A challenge that seemed inevitable the way the Red Raiders bolted to the early lead and played defense. Even when North switched to a diamond-and-one defense that collapsed on Rojas in the third quarter, others burned the Spartans from three-point range. Noah Johnson, Luke Kindberg and eighth-grader Tyler Hind all drained treys to give the No. 3 seed a 38-25 lead heading into the final quarter.
North’s defense worked in the fourth quarter as it forced the Raiders into quick, poor shots and turnovers. Maceo Jack’s second trey of the quarter with 1:54 left pulled North within 43-40. After two Jairus Huggins free throws trimmed the deficit to one, the score stayed that way until Jack, who scored a game-high 18, launched a three for the lead. It missed, but Kelly grabbed the rebound and scored to give the Spartans their short-lived 44-43 lead.
North (14-8) still almost won after Rojas’ free throws, as Sean Hill’s contested trey rimmed out at the buzzer.
“I thought that was in,” a relieved Rojas said.
“Just didn’t have the storybook ending … everything else was there,” said North coach Chuck Swierski. “Give Rojas credit. He made a tough play and made free throws under pressure.”
Niagara Falls eliminated the suspense early, moving the ball well and nailing open shots to take a 9-2 lead before the game was four minutes old. The Wolverines led 20-8 after one, as 6-2 SyQuan Ralands scored six of his game-high 19 during the opening eight minutes.
He opened the game with a layup and his third of the quarter made it 15-6 as he more than held his own inside against Lancaster’s bulk and height.
Breon Harris added 17 for Falls, which at one point had made more three-pointers (five) than free throws (two). Harris went 8 for 8 from the line in the fourth quarter to help the Wolverines improve on a 2-for-15 mark through three quarters.
Free-throw shooting is something the Wolverines must improve on if they want to win their first title since 2012. Still, if they play defense Saturday like they did Tuesday, free throws might not matter.
“We know what our strength is,” said Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino. “We come out and we guard. We hold them to 16 in a half, 36 for the game. Those are games that are winnable for us.”