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East and Health Sciences hope defensive stands lead to championship glory

Starling Bryant has never been to Binghamton. He hears Floyd L. Maines Arena is a fine place for a boys basketball game.

Of course, if one happens to be a coach of a high school team that is just two wins away from winning a New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association championship it doesn't really matter where the games are being played so long as your team is among the competitors.

Bryant's East Panthers most definitely are. So, too, are the Health Sciences Falcons.

The two Section VI champions look to turn state title dreams into reality this weekend during the NYSPHSAA Final Four. Both teams play semifinal contests Friday – although East (18-6) has the early wake-up call time slot. It plays the very first game of the tournament at 9:30 a.m. against Section X champion Harrisville (22-3) in Class D.

Health Sciences Charter School (21-4), the Buffalo News' top-ranked small school, returns to action on the same court where its season ended last year. The Falcons face Section IV champion Seton Catholic (22-2) at 5 p.m. in the same venue in which the private school defeated defending state Class B champion and longtime power Westhill of Section III in the Central Regional last Sunday.

The semifinal winners advance to championship games Saturday. Section VI hasn't won a NYSPHSAA title in hoops since Olean (Class B) and Middle College (Class C) pulled off the feat back in 2016.

This is the second year the tournament will be held in Binghamton after more than three decades of being conducted in Glens Falls.

There's a time when Bryant could have been considered a regular at the state tournament. That's because he guided his powerhouse Traditional teams to three state championships and a Federation tournament crown when both events were contested in Glens Falls. He also led East to the final four in Class A back in 2008.

That was the Panthers' last final four appearance until they defeated Section V champion Clyde Savannah last Saturday in the Far West Regional at Buffalo State.

"Anytime you get to the final four you have to have things fall your way," said Bryant, the all-time winningest coach in Yale Cup history who has guided a team to the semis for the seventh time in his career." It's been 10 years and it doesn't seem that long. Sometimes you take it for granted. When you don't get there for a while you kind of appreciate it more. Maybe earlier in my career I took it for granted. Now you appreciate how hard it is to get to the state final four. You have to work hard to make it. Some years you make it. Some years you don't."

The Panthers made it this year because they've shown the knack for finishing strong. They've also shown playing a gritty game. If the offense isn't working, they do not get discouraged. They know it will come so long as they maintain their determination on defense.

"Keep hustling, control the boards and get defensive stops," said senior Willard Anderson, who averages just under 26 points per game. "If they're not scoring, our offense is going to automatically kick in."

"We can't take a play off," added classmate Justin Allen. "Defense wins championships."

Health Sciences also knows defense can put a team in a spot to do just that.

The Falcons captured the overall Section VI Class B championship March 6 despite scoring just 36 points. That proved to be enough as they held Olean, another team known for its strong postseason D, to 34 points. Kameron Briggs made the two biggest plays of the game in the closing seconds -- he swiped an inbounds pass and then made a final steal at half court when Olean had possessions to either go for the tie or win. Defense, that's how the Falcons won a game in which they scored just 10 points in a half.

Health Sciences was slightly better offensively in its Far West Regional win over Greece Odyssey. The Falcons' defense, however, held Greece Odyssey to 13 total points in the middle quarters as Health Sciences methodically extended a 13-12 first-quarter lead. The Falcons won 52-46.

Being disciplined on defense will be a key for Health Sciences against Seton.

The Saints, winners of 15 straight games, are described as an old-school, fundamentally-sound crew. Seniors and freshmen have contributed to Seton Catholic's berth into the state semifinals for the first time since 2010.

Senior Leo Gallagher and freshman Marcus Dyes lead the Saints in scoring at 13.5 and 11.8 points per game.

"They try to get their players open. .. That's why they beat the defending state champions," Falcons coach Ty Parker said. "They play hard, they have a good shooter. They have a good inside presence. We have to play the right way because they're a well-coached team. … We have to be on top of our game if we want to win."

Learning from past mistakes is something Parker also hopes will aid his team in its quest to become the first Western New York charter school to win a state title. The Falcons were slightly off during last year's 67-55 semifinal loss to Canton. They had trouble getting stops at key times and also had trouble scoring the basketball.

"I told the guys we can't start out slow, sluggish," Parker said. "This is the state semifinals.

"Their focus in practice is totally different than it was last year because that's from taking that loss last year. We felt we were better than Canton, but we still took the loss. … We have to play Grade A type of basketball if we want to win."

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