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Niagara Falls redirects pressure to claim third straight Class AA crown

Niagara Falls handled the pressure the best way it knows how. By applying some of its own.

The Wolverines relied on their signature attacking defense to defeat Williamsville North 61-42 and claim their third straight Section VI Class AA championship Saturday in front of an estimated crowd of 1,500 at Buffalo State’s Sports Arena.

Winning its 12th sectional title in 18 seasons since the school opened — combining a talent pool that had won 33 championships between the old Niagara Falls High School, LaSalle and Trott Vocatoinal — Niagara Falls (19-4) advances to next Saturday’s Far West Regional against the winner of Saturday night’s Section V championship game between McQuaid Jesuit and University Prep.

With the words “Worthy of the Jersey” printed on the back of their warmup jackets, the top-seeded Wolverines also wore championship expectations into their matchup with the No. 3 seed Spartans, who were playing in their first sectional final since losing to Niagara Falls in 2009.

“I’m trying to convince the kids how they should be really proud of this moment and happy with this moment,” Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said. “Unfortunately, with expectations at our place, it’s a belief. It should never be that. It should never be, oh, you are going to win for sure.”

Those expectations tempered the Wolverines’ enthusiasm after a hard-fought 48-39 win over Jamestown in the semifinals.

“That really stems back to what we talk about with the pressure on these guys,” Constantino said. “They can win and then people tell them they didn’t win by enough.”

On Saturday, however, it was Williamsville North (15-8) that was unable to withstand the pressure. The Spartans struggled to navigate through Niagara Falls’ variety of aggressive defenses and get into the measured halfcourt offense that had led to a seven-game winning streak.

“That’s the best defensive team we’ve played all year, without a doubt,” North coach Chuck Swierski said. “Our two best plays, we maybe ran five times because we were scrambling so much.”

On top of several dead-ball turnovers, the Wolverines created 17 steals, each of which seemed to quickly turn into a fastbreak layup.

“That’s who we are,” Constantino said. “At the end of the day, you have to beat it before we take it off.”

With two eighth graders, Willie Lightfoot (four points, five steals) and Roddy Gayle (12 points, two steals), starting the game and setting the defensive tone, Niagara Falls also benefitted from the experience of its four seniors — Syquan Ralands, Marquise Miller, Tazaun Rose and Quaran Dubois.

“We say all the time when we talk with the seniors, your next loss is your last loss,” Constantino said. “And it’s going to happen to the majority of the players in the country. But at the end of the day, just know that you went out playing your best and your style.”

Ralands controlled the paint for the Wolverines, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five steals. Dubois scored six of his nine points in the first quarter to help Niagara Falls establish an early 15-9 lead.

But Constantino was most proud of the performance and leadership provided by Rose (seven points) and Miller (four points), who have both embraced reserve roles as seniors.

“They’ve been absolutely terrific,” Constantino said. “I see a little maturity in them. They get it.”

Constantino referred to the “We > Me” slogan printed on the back of Niagara Falls’ warmup t-shirts.

“We talk about being something better than yourself, and I think those guys are showing it,” Constantino said. “I keep telling them it will make us a better team and make us better people.”

Williamsville North, which started only one senior, Ryan Johnston, was led by junior guard Jacob Belote, who scored nine of his 11 points in the first half. The Spartans got within 19-15 midway through the second quarter before Niagara Falls broke the game open with an 11-1 run.

“It’s sad that this season came to an end, but the way it ended, to a team like the Falls, it’s not that bad,” Swierski said. “There’s no shame in losing to the Falls because they beat up a lot of teams.”

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