In the jubilant aftermath of a win for the ages, nobody could recall the last time Cardinal O’Hara had defeated Canisius in boys basketball.
Retired athletic director Angelo Sciandra looked up at the championship banners hanging on the wall of O’Hara’s gym. “It had to be either 1982 or 1994,” he said.
Already regarded as one of the top small schools in Western New York, O’Hara made a big statement with its 70-65 triumph in front of a standing-room only crowd of more than 700 on Wednesday night.
“This is a huge win for our program,” Hawks coach Tony Pulvirenti said.
O’Hara, ranked No. 2 in the The News’ small school poll and No. 4 in the state in Class B, opened Monsignor Martin play with a monumental win and improved to 5-0 with its second consecutive victory against a top 10 large school.
After pulling out an overtime win against No. 8 Health Sciences in the ADPRO Public/Private Challenge on Saturday, the Hawks weathered an early storm and came back on the Crusaders (4-1), standard-bearers in the Monsignor Martin for the past two decades who entered the game ranked No. 2 in the area and 11th in the state Class A rankings.
“This is really big to us because Canisius is a top team in Western New York,” junior guard Avion Harris said. “We came in with the mindset that we were the small school and we could roll with the big dogs.”
“This was for all the small schools around the area,” senior forward Haakim Siner added. “It wasn’t just for Cardinal. It was for everyone.”
Harris and Siner were key contributors for the Niagara Catholic team that beat O’Hara for the Manhattan Cup small school championship last season. When Niagara Catholic closed its doors, they bolstered an O’Hara squad returning four staters.
“Last year, we were rivals,” Siner said. “Together we can be one of the best schools in the area.”
The small school super-team has the potential to be “a powerhouse in Western New York,” Harris said.
The Niagara Falls tandem made a significant impact against Canisius. The 6-foot-4 Siner dominated the fourth quarter and finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, while Harris (13 points, three steals) led the Hawks’ second-quarter comeback with his aggressive perimeter defense and energetic transition offense.
“They’ve added a lot of toughness,” Pulvirenti said. “Haakim and Avi bring that underdog mentality that we kind of have here, so they fit our culture.”
Justin Hemphill, a third-team All-WNY selection as a junior, added 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Boosting his school record rebounding total (897), the 6-5 forward also moved into second place on the Hawks’ all-time scoring list with 1,316 points. He’s now 129 points away from James Ewing’s school record.
“He does a little of everything for us,” Pulvirenti said. “He keeps the guys together and he’s starting to look like a senior as far as leadership goes.”
Jermaine Haynes Jr. scored four of his 13 points in the final 1:35, including a layup on a feed from Harris that sealed the win with 30 seconds left. Reserves Yeshua Lee (six points) and Joe Turri (four points) filled in when Hemphill, Harris, Siner and 6-6 starter Jaedin Cottman (three points) got into foul trouble.
“Our bench has been huge the last couple games,” Pulvirenti said. “I tell them in the locker room every day, we’ve got 10 guys. We’re not going to win with just five.”
Dewayne Voss led Canisius (4-1) with 18 points. Joe Jamison added 11 and Eric Kegler had 10.
The Crusaders opened an early 17-8 lead before the Hawks used a pair of 7-0 runs to take a 35-33 lead into halftime. O’Hara never relinquished its lead in the second half.
“We lost because O’Hara played way harder than we did for three quarters,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “I can break it down to just that. It was all hustle, second-chance opportunities, 50-50 balls, all the tough plays. I give them all the credit in the world because they did it and we didn’t.”
Canisius started the season with impressive wins against West Seneca West, South Park and McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester.
“I think we were 4-0 and thought we were a little better than we are,” Husband said. “The first four games, I couldn’t be more proud with how we played and the way we competed, especially in tough environments. So I was really happy until yesterday’s practice and tonight’s game.”
Fans began filling the gym by halftime of the junior varsity contest. Among the many past and present All-WNY players in attendance was Jonny Flynn, the Niagara Falls native who went on to star at Syracuse University and become a first-round NBA draft pick.
“To see that many people come out, it’s amazing,” Hemphill said. “We usually have only one side of the bleachers pulled out. Tonight we had both.
“We saw everybody here and we wanted to make it a show.”