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Playoff-caliber defense drives Olean, East Aurora girls into B-1 final

In a showdown between the two most prolific offensive players in Western New York girls basketball, team defense determined whose season would continue.

“It always does,” Olean coach Chelsea Bowker said with a smile.

Section VI scoring leader Sara Pfeiffer had 24 points, a dozen below her season average, but the Huskies’ pack mentality on defense against City Honors’ scoring star Kyra Wood carried Olean to a 52-34 victory in a Class B-1 semifinal on Tuesday night.

Olean (20-2), the No. 3 team in The News’ small school poll, will meet No. 5 East Aurora (19-3) for the Class B-1 championship at 5 p.m. Sunday at Buffalo State after the Blue Devils used their full-court pressure defense to defeat Fredonia 45-33 in the other semifinal game at Kenmore West.

“We say defense wins championships,” said East Aurora senior Sara Tully, who had 20 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals. “And now we’re going to the big dance.”

Second-seeded East Aurora is going back to Buff State for the second time in four years after consecutive heartbreakers in the semifinals. No. 4 seed Olean won the B-1 title in 2016 and reached the A-2 final in 2017 before enduring a losing season, while Pfeiffer played at Seton Catholic prep school in Chandler, Ariz. last year.

“We deserved this,” Pfeiffer said. “My team has been through a lot.”

Pfeiffer’s teammates came through on a night when she battled early foul trouble and struggled with her shot, going 0 for 7 from 3-point range. And it took a team effort for Olean to hold top-seeded City Honors to a season-low scoring total.

Double-teaming Wood in the middle of their 3-2 zone and on the defensive boards, the Huskies held the 6-foot-2 sophomore to 15 points. She came in averaging 32.9 and had scored at least 27 in every game this season. Wood impacted the game by blocking seven shots and diving for several loose balls, but only had eight rebounds, a handful below her usual output.

Olean also forced City Honors into 31 turnovers, several of which led to easy layups for Pfeiffer. The Huskies didn’t allow the Centaurs to make a 3-pointer and held them to 40 percent shooting inside the arc.

“We did what we needed to on the defensive end,” Bowker said. “I’m really proud of the defense they played. Our offense was very ugly tonight.”

City Honors opened an early 8-2 lead after Pfeiffer picked up her second foul three minutes into the game. Scoreless through the first quarter, Pfeiffer struggled to find her rhythm upon returning in the second.

But with the Centaurs defense tuned to Pfeiffer, senior guard Justine Brooks scored eight of her 14 points during a 13-2 run that allowed Olean to extend its defense and take control of the game.

“My teammates stepped up big,” Pfeiffer said. “Especially Justine. She has the second best shot in the world – after me.”

Brooks said she’s “ecstatic” to be playing in the sectional final at Buff State for the first time in her career.

“We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and we’re just super excited,” she said.

East Aurora took a while to assert itself against Fredonia, the two-time defending overall Class B champions who pulled a pair of upsets to reach the semifinals as a No. 14 seed.

Tied at 8-8 after the first quarter, the Blue Devils went on an 8-2 run to take a 19-12 lead at halftime and opened the third quarter with a 15-5 spurt keyed by their full-court press.

East Aurora got its running game going by creating 21 steals, 11 coming from the backcourt pair of senior captain Katherine Jancevski and junior Katie Oar. That made up for the team's 0-for-19 performance from long range. 

“They are a really athletic bunch so they can get after it on defense,” East Aurora coach Gary Schutrum said. “We are not always proficient on the offensive end every night, but we can defend. You’ve got to win with defense this time of year, and I think we can do it.”

Fredonia was led by 5-foot-11 Grace Mroczka (nine points) and strong 5-9 forward Nagely Vazquez (eight points, eight rebounds, six blocks) but the Blue Devils perimeter defense limited opportunities for the Hillbillies’ frontcourt duo.

East Aurora now turns its attention to trying to stop Pfeiffer, who hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in consecutive games all season. After scoring 24 against Depew in the opening round of sectionals, Pfeiffer hung 50 on Dunkirk in the quarterfinals.

“We’ve got to play really good defense,” Jancevski said. “But if we just play our game, I think we’ll come home with the win.”

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