The No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the News’ small school rankings met Monday night at Buffalo State with more than a spot in the Section VI Class B-2 final on the line.
“It’s kind of personal,” Health Sciences standout Davonte Gaines said of the matchup with Middle Early College. “We’re all friends. We hang out every day. So it was more about bragging rights.”
Turning up the defensive pressure after a sluggish start, Health Sciences climbed out of a five-point hole at halftime and ran away with a 62-42 victory over the Yale Cup champions in the B-2 semifinals.
Defending champion Health Sciences (18-4) will face JFK (17-5) in the title game at 1:45 Saturday after the Bears defeated Southwestern 66-60 in Monday’s second semifinal.
With Health Sciences hovering atop the Western New York rankings but seeded fourth in the sectional bracket, the matchup with top-seed Middle College (16-6) had the feel of a championship game, drawing an estimated crowd of 800 people to Buffalo State’s Sports Arena.
But the Falcons weren’t ready to cut down the nets after the win.
“We don’t feel like we won a championship already just by beating Middle College,” Health Sciences coach Ty Parker said. “I respect Middle College, it’s kind of a rivalry for the kids, but at the end of the day, we still have work to do. The championship is waiting there to be won and we need to get ready for our next opponent.”
Gaines, the 6-foot-7 senior committed to play for the University of Tennessee, put on a performance worthy of his “Ticket” nickname, driving Health Sciences comeback with crowd-pleasing plays on both ends of the floor and finishing with 21 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, six blocks and five steals.
“What I try to tell Davonte is, in certain games, he needs to take over,” Parker said. “He’s a great team player and I love him for it, but sometimes he has to show that he is the best player on the floor.”
Middle College was in the lead for the entire first half and used a 12-4 run to go up by double figures before taking a 29-24 advantage into halftime.
Starting the game in a passive man-to-man defense to avoid early fouls, Health Sciences switched to an aggressive press in the second half to seize control of the game.
“As long as we are not in foul trouble, we can play the way we want to play,” Parker said. “But sometimes the kids don’t know how hard they have to play all the time. They take plays off and I tell them, as soon as they do that, we give the other team confidence. We take pride in our defense because defense wins championships.”
The Falcons held the Kats to just four points in the third quarter, forcing several turnovers at mid-court that turned into quick transition baskets.
Gaines made a pair of free throws after getting fouled on a putback attempt to give Health Sciences its first lead of the game, 34-33, midway through the quarter. Not long after that, Gaines flushed an alley-oop on the fast break to make it 43-33 and Kats were never able to claw back.
“We made an adjustment to a full-court press to force them to dribble and make bad decisions,” Gaines said. “We forced them into turnovers and when we get steals, we get on the fast break and get the ball to the open man before the defense gets set. Once we got the lead, we took over the game from there.”
Tayvion Nelson produced a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) for Health Sciences. Tyseen Lott also scored a dozen points.
Middle College, which came into the semifinal on a six-game winning streak, was led by Jamond Jones (12 points) and Aziyon Clemens (10).
No. 3 seed JFK also used a big third quarter to pull away from 10th-seeded Southwestern, who was coming off an upset of No. 2 Olmsted.
Southwestern led 28-26 at halftime before JFK hit a flurry of 3-pointers in the third quarter to establish 46-35 advantage. Southwestern scored 25 fourth quarter points to make things interesting down the stretch, getting within six points in the final minute, but could not close the gap.
“We got the momentum on our side and guys were feeling it,” JFK coach Tony Krupski said. “Our mantra all year has been ‘find a way.’ We’ve been finding different ways to win and tonight we went on a run and everybody did a good job coming together.”
Playing at Buff State for the first time since 2006, JFK will now go after its first sectional title since winning the C-2 crown in 1996.
“It’s huge for us as a school and even as a community,” said senior captain Jacob Braniecki, who punctuated the win with a two-handed jam in the closing minutes and led the Bears with 26 points, nine rebounds and four assists. “Nobody believed we could do it but we came out and proved everybody wrong.”
Nick Baker added 19 points for JFK, knocking down five 3s. Mitchell Fischer (11 points) and Jordan Snyder (10) were the only other Bears to score.
Mayson Matthews led Southwestern (16-8) with 22 points and six 3s. Alex Card scored 18.