NIAGARA FALLS – So two-thirds of the towering big men that made Park such a handful last season are now gone.
Big deal. The Pioneers still have a pretty good size advantage with just 6-foot-8 senior Quentin Nnagbo patrolling the paint.
He asserted his will Friday night for defending New York State Federation Class A champion Park. So too did good-old reliable Noah Hutchins, as the Pioneers improved to 2-0 on young boys basketball season by defeating host Niagara Falls, 69-55, during the opening night of the Cataract City Classic.
Sophomore Keonjay Carter (17 points), Hutchins (11 points, 10 assists) and the Pioneers defense shined in this clash champions. Park also played with more poise and sharpness than the Wolverines, the defending Section VI Class AA champions.
But Nnagbo showed the Pioneers can still cause problems for the opposition in the paint simply because it’s hard to guard a strong, athletic and determined center. Nnagbo poured in 17 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and had three blocks.
Nearly half of his points came during the Pioneers’ 19-point second quarter, which enabled them to seize control for good against a young, talented Falls crew that will have better days than it did Friday before a packed crowd at Wolvarena that included Canisius College coach Reggie Witherspoon.
“We played as a team and I did what I had to do to make my team better,” said Nnagbo, an All-Western New York honorable mention pick last year.
Falls trailed 19-15 early in the second quarter when the Pioneers took advantage of misses and turnovers to push the lead to 36-23 at halftime. Nnagbo had eight points in the quarter, while Carter had four. Nnagbo added five more points in the third quarter, including a two-handed jam that made it 46-27 with just over 2 minutes left.
“I think he’s gaining confidence,” Pioneers coach Rich Jacob said. “ ‘Q’ worked very hard in the offseason. He knows how he can contribute and I think he’s assumed a leadership role for us.”
“He’s always been a huge piece of the team,” said Hutchins, the returning first team All-WNY point guard. “He’s a presence in the paint. When he’s not in the game, it’s a little tough.”
Park led by as much as 21 twice, the final time with just under 2 minutes remaining.
Sophomore Jalen Bradberry led Niagara Falls with 20 points in his Wolverines debut. The fourth team All-Western New York selection helped the now defunct Niagara Catholic win the Manhattan Cup Class B championship last year.
Falls (0-1) had a 10-6 lead just 2:27 into the game after back-to-back treys from Josiah Harris and Moran Montgomery and a Bradberry putback. The Pioneers responded by scoring 11 of the final 12 points to end the first quarter. Hutchins started the blitz with two straight baskets. A Jai’Den Dun tip-in putback gave the Pioneers the lead for good. A three-pointer from Carter and steal and layup by sophomore Desmond Davis before the end of the quarter gave Park a 17-11 lead.
What sparked the turnaround? Talking on defense.
“We were looking to recover to the shooters,” Jacob said. “Against a good running team like that, that has shooting weapons, when you recover you can’t recover to the paint. You have to recover wide to the shooters and there has to be a good deal of communication, early talk. We learned very quickly that we weren’t executing our plan.”
Once the Pioneers did, it was tough sledding for Niagara Falls, which hopes this game winds up being a learning experience that can benefit it down the road. The lesson: Park kept its composure when it trailed, while Falls didn’t once it fell behind.
“We made a run at them early and like a good team they didn’t let that bother them,” Falls coach Sal Constantino said. “They made a run at us and ... we started taking bad shots. We started to try to make every single play, They destroyed us on the boards. We were one shot and done and they were in transition. It’s an eye opener for me and I hope it was for the guys.”
The Cataract City Classic continues Saturday at Wolvarena with a six-game lineup that begins at noon with Sweet Home facing Lewiston-Porter and ends at 7:30 p.m. with Niagara Falls facing Bishop Timon-St. Jude.