GREECE – Next stop for Niagara Falls boys basketball: Binghamton.
That means the drought is officially OVER.
The Wolverines (21-3) are heading to the New York State Public Schools High Schools Athletic Association Final Four for the first time since 2009.
They punched their ticket by taking out Rochester private school and defending Far West Regional Class AA champion McQuaid, 84-71, before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 at Greece Athena High School.
Freshman Willie Lightfoot followed up a sensational Section VI final with an encore performance that broke the Knights’ spirit. He scored a game-high 32 points and dished out four assists. Sophomore Jalen Bradberry chipped in with 16, Jaemon Turner 14 and Josiah Harris 13 as Falls came out on the positive end of an entertaining game. It was a thriller that hung in the balance until the Wolverines broke things open with a 16-3 run that spanned the final 53 seconds of the third quarter and opening 3 minutes, 9 seconds of the final period.
“The monkey is off my back,” Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said. “I’m the only guy who has lost this game four times or three times in a row. These kids, it had nothing to do with them. I’m really proud of them.”
“It feels good. Sal’s my guy,” Lightfoot said. “Words can’t explain how happy I am for him. Sal’s my guy and I’m happy to try to get him one.”
Niagara Falls (21-3) returns to action at 5 p.m. Friday at Floyd L. Maines Memorial Arena against Section III champion West Genesee in the first of two Class AA semifinal contests that night.
The Wolverines had suffered season-ending defeats each of the past three seasons in the state quarterfinals, including a tough-to-swallow 65-57 loss to a McQuaid team it beat during the regular season last season.
Saturday night, Falls didn’t shoot itself out of the game as it had last year against McQuaid and the previous two seasons against Fairport and Aquinas, respectively.
Led by Lightfoot’s 11-for-19 shooting performance, Turner’s 5-of-8 showing and Harris’ 4 of 8 from beyond the arc – the Wolverines shot 50 percent from the floor. Though the undersized Falls lost the rebounding battle, they made it tougher for the Knights to score inside and held them to 37.8 percent shooting during the second half after they had been connecting at a sizzling 50 percent through 16 minutes.
Lightfoot, coming off a 39-point effort in the sectional final, had another big second half after both teams went into intermission tied 34-34. Lightfoot scored 22 points after the break – including 12 during the final 3:25 to blunt comeback hopes by the Knights.
“My teammates do a great job of getting me the ball and getting me the spots ... that’s what it was,” Lightfoot said.
“He’s just letting the game come to him a little bit and he’s got some great parts around him,” Constantino said of Lightfoot. “Josiah made some big shots, Jalen was great at the line and getting to the line. We talked to him about being our catalyst. ... I thought tonight he led us.”
Lightfoot drove and dished to Turner for a layup that gave Falls a 48-47 lead, sparking the game-decisive run. Bradberry had six points during the run, while Lightfoot contributed a sweet runner in the lane and a 3-pointer.
“It felt the whole game we weren’t going to get a rebound,” Constantino said. “To their credit they went really hard to the glass but in the end we got a couple big ones we needed. At one point we were up 10 and I didn’t really know we were up 10. It really was going back and forth back and forth.”