It hadn’t dawned on Nick O’Neil until a few days ago just how long it’s been since the Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball team has lost to a Western New York opponent.
It was March 1, 2013, a defeat at the hands of rival Sacred Heart in the Monsignor Martin championship at Canisius College.
Sure, there have been close calls along the way, most recently a 63-57 win at Amherst this past December that saw the Hawks down 18-9 after the first quarter and 32-20 at the half.
But nevertheless, nearly five years after that March 2013 loss, O’Hara has found a way to come out on the winning end against every willing local combatant since.
The No. 1-ranked Hawks (19-6) extended their unbeaten streak against area foes to 87 games with a dramatic 55-51 win at No. 2 Williamsville South (14-5) in front of a capacity crowd on Main Street Saturday afternoon.
“That was just a great girls high school basketball game, one of the better ones I’ve seen around here in awhile.” Nick O’Neil said. “I think we just get it from so many different people, where we don’t have to depend on one, has been the whole secret throughout the years.
“It’s never been, ‘You’ve gotta stop this one player.’ You gotta stop all of these players and you gotta handle their press, and I don’t think a lot of people can handle our press.”
On Saturday, it was all about the backcourt duo of senior Nickelle O’Neil and junior Angel Parker. The co-captains combined for 27 points (Parker a team-high 15) and were pests on the defensive end of the floor as well, helping the Hawks force South into upwards of 30 turnovers.
“The two guards, Nickelle O’Neil – my daughter – and Angel Parker, the pressure that they can put on people bringing the basketball up ... all year, they have shut down some of the best guards in the state,” Nick O’Neil said. “We wouldn’t be nowhere without them two. Those two are the heart and soul of the team. They never complain, whine, cry or anything. To me, they were the deciding factor in the game today.”
Seniors Cierra Harrison (13 points) and Kiara Johnson (12 points) also scored in double figures for O’Hara. The Billies were led by a game-high 19 from freshman Amari DeBerry and 10 from sophomore Hannah Dolan.
O’Hara’s full-court pressure forced nearly 10 steals in the first quarter alone, allowing the Hawks to get out to leads of 11-0, 15-1 and 17-3 before taking a 23-9 lead into the second quarter.
Amari DeBerry scored the first seven points of South’s 11-0 run to open the second and bring its deficit to 23-20 three minutes in. O’Neil scored five points and Parker added four during a 10-3 O’Hara run to close out the half with a 33-26 lead.
The Billies came out of the break hot offensively and limited the Hawks to just four points in the third quarter. Senior Naomi DeBerry, Amari’s older sister, tied the game at 37-37 on a left-handed layin with 2:00 to go in the third quarter and made a corner three the ensuing possession to give South a 40-37 lead heading into the final frame.
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South’s last lead was 45-44 with less than five minutes to go before the Hawks closed on an 11-6 run. A Johnson jumper from the free-throw line with about a minute left extended O’Hara’s lead to 53-49, and the Eastern Michigan-bound power forward secured a defensive rebound on other end to seal it.
The outcome wasn’t what South coach Kristen Dolan had hoped for, but it was a considerable sign of growth following a 74-43 loss to O’Hara two seasons ago and a 74-52 loss to the Hawks last season.
“I think that’s what we’ve learned through our nonleague losses with Kearney and Our Lady of Mercy,” Dolan said. “We used to melt, or we would kind of maybe give up or not work as hard once a team came at us. But today, after those first turnovers ... we couldn’t ask for anything better like this going into playoffs because we can take this game and learn from it.”