One would have thought Williamsville North coach Chuck Swierski would have been thrilled being the No. 1 seed in the Section VI boys basketball Class AA Tournament.
Theoretically, the top seed has an easier path to the championship game.
Except Swierski knew life would be hard for his Spartans when they faced eighth-seeded Frontier. Just 11 days ago, the teams met at Williamsville North with the Spartans needing a game-saving block in the final seconds from Jonathon Abaya to preserve the 2-point victory. In an elimination game, the Falcons figured to be an even tougher out, considering they wanted to prolong the career of retiring longtime coach Gary Domzalski.
As expected, Frontier did not go quietly into the night. For a stretch, it looked as if the Falcons were going to extend Domzalski’s career, giving him one more chance to coach during Championship Week at Buffalo State. But Williamsville North had other ideas. It dug deep, rallying from an early 13-point deficit and once again receiving a big play from Abaya in the closing seconds to hang on for a 63-59 victory Friday night.
In a tough, physical matchup between ECIC I rivals, Abaya’s putback after a missed free throw with 27 seconds left gave North (19-2) a 62-59 lead and effectively blunted a late 9-2 by the never-say-die Falcons (10-12). Frontier misfired on a game-tying three-point try with under 10 seconds left. Abaya made a free throw with 4 seconds left to secure the Spartans’ spot in Monday’s semifinal doubleheader at Buffalo State.
North, last year’s sectional runner-up, will face No. 5 seed Lockport, which defeated fourth-seeded Clarence in another quarterfinal Friday.
“There are a lot of teams that would’ve just folded and said it’s not our night,” Swierski said. “Then we dug in, made a couple plays. It’s survive and advance and that’s what we did today.”
As expected, it was a battle.
What caught North by surprise was how effectively the Falcons moved the ball against its 2-3 zone, finding open shots with Ben Taylor and Alex Hiam each draining two three-pointers during the opening 8 minutes. Frontier led 18-11 after the period. Taylor hit two more three-pointers during the first 1:55 of the period. Mix in a runner from Brian Norsen and basket from reserve Chris Jones and the lead grew to 28-15. Upset alert, upset alert.
Then North changed to a 1-3-1 half-court trap in an attempt to speed up the methodical Falcons. It worked as the Spartans closed the half with a 15-2 run. Jacob Belote had seven of his 15 points during the blitz, while Scott Becht (10 points) added six.
Frontier led early in the third quarter 38-32 after another three by Taylor, who finished with a game-high 17 points That’s the final time North trailed, as it used a 14-2 run to push ahead of the Falcons for good. Belote’s traditional three-point play with 3:53 left in the third made it 41-40 North.
“He’s been our best player all year long,” Swierski said of Belote. “In crunch time he’s not afraid to take the shot. He’s not afraid to make the decision as to who gets that shot. He had a couple real nice steals ... He’s been doing it all year.”
Frontier refused to let the Spartans run away, keeping within striking distance and heading into the final quarter down 52-47. A Norsen trey made it 52-50 early in the fourth quarter. That’s as close as the Falcons got until Norsen (13 points) nailed another three with 45.2 seconds left that pulled them within 60-59.
Storybook ending still within reach for Frontier, except Abaya (14 points) had other ideas.
“It would’ve been nice to have the ball with a one-point deficit, three kind of forces your hand,” Domzalski said. “That was a huge putback.”
So what’s next for Domzalski?
He does have his part-time job supervising student teachers at Canisius College. But for a 64-year-old who has called the gymnasium his second home since age 10, he’s not sure.
Domzalski ends his 37-year career as a head coach (32 at Frontier) with 436 wins, seven ECIC I titles, four Monsignor Martin League A crowns and one Section VI championship.
“It’s going to be a big adjustment but it’s been a heck of a ride,” he said. “To get kids to play together, to play hard if I was successful at doing that then I’m happy. Not everybody’s going to win a state championship, it always ends with a loss. Sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story about a basketball team. ... They played their hearts out.”