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St. Francis wins another overtime thriller against Park

Another big finish punctuated the latest meeting between St. Francis' and Park's boys basketball teams.

Once again the Red Raiders hit the biggest shots and made the biggest plays when this Monsignor Martin High School Athletic Association clash hung in the balance.

They now control their own destiny in the quest to capture their first regular-season league title since coach Brian Ferris' senior season as a player for the Red Raiders back in 2000.

Junior Bo Sireika's three-pointer with 95 seconds left in overtime gave St. Francis the lead for good as the Buffalo News' top-ranked large school held on to defeat the third-ranked Pioneers, 54-53, before a sellout crowd of roughly 700.

When Brandon Smith missed a trey at the buzzer from the left corner, it secured the Red Raiders' second win of the season over the talented but young crew from Park which at one point was ranked first in the state among Class A teams.

That changed when St. Francis beat the Pioneers roughly three weeks ago at Park. The Red Raiders' latest triumph proved their first win over the Pioneers, a double overtime thriller in which the Red Raiders (17-4, 10-1) rallied from a 19-point halftime deficit, wasn't an accident.

"They're a very good basketball team," Park coach Mike Battaglia said. "Bo can shoot lights out. Julian" Cunningham "is very good. They've got good players and a good coach. That's why they win."

In St. Francis' last five games against ranked Western New York teams, it has won four of them – the lone loss to current No. 2 Williamsville South.

That successful run, though, didn't stop students from rushing the floor after the final miss to celebrate the team's latest big victory in a season full of them.

"We heard the people calling it a fluke but we knew we could play with them just like the first game," said Sireika, the third-year starter who drained five three-pointers en route to scoring a game-high 20 points.

"It feels great, everybody's ecstatic," said sophomore guard Julian Cunningham, who had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. "Our crowd helped us out a lot. It made us want to go even harder and so did our coaches and so did teammates on the bench who kept us hydrated and motivated."

Cunningham left out toughness, which enabled St. Francis to gain the separation on the scoreboard it needed to remain alone in first place in the MMHSAA.

From forwards boxing out Park's big front line so that guards could sneak in for rebounds, to taking a charge at a key time, to beating the Pioneers down court for open baskets down the stretch -- the Red Raiders did the little things it takes to win a game between two, evenly matched teams.

The Red Raiders held a 32-31 edge in rebounds with guards accounting for 15 of them. Sean Taggert (10 rebounds) took a charge on a layup try after Sireika's go-ahead basket to help protect the lead as the defense thwarted the Pioneers on their final three possessions.

Then there was the matter of Frannies players beating Park defenders down court after made baskets. Sireika scored twice while another chance resulted in two missed free throws. Each of those opportunities came after Park either scored to tie the game or take the lead.

"We just outran their team because their bigs couldn't keep up with our bigs in transition," Cunningham said.

"That's deflating for the other team," Ferris said. "They're excited and then they look up and we hit a" shot.

Park trailed 44-38 when it mounted a rally to force overtime. Dan Scott's trey with 1:55 left trimmed the deficit. A Noah Hutchins free throw made it a two-point game with a minute left. The Pioneers tied it on a short jumper by Joe Jones off a nice feed from fellow big man Julian Eziukwu with 41 seconds left. Three seconds later, Sireika scored on a layup as he beat his defender down the floor.

Eziukwu scored on a putback with 26 seconds left to tie it at 46. Each team had possessions to win it in regulation but misfired on chances to set up another big finish between the teams.

Park took the lead thrice in overtime as Jones scored the final six points for his team. He scored 10 of his 16 points in the final 12 minutes for the Pioneers (14-4, 7-3).

They left Sireika open in the left corner shortly after Jones gave them a 53-51 lead.

"I like the kids. I think we're going to get better but they don't know yet what it takes to be consistently good," Battaglia lamented after the game. "If we want to beat St. Francis we have to play tougher, take charges, get back on defense. We're not there yet."

The Red Raiders proved themselves again but they know they must continue to do so, starting with Tuesday's contest at second-place Bishop Timon-St. Jude (15-5, 8-2), which is ranked fourth in Western New York.

"We have to keep this momentum rolling," Sireika said.

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