GREECE – At least one Middle Early College player yelled “I thought we were done” heading into the winner’s locker room Saturday at Greece Athena High School.
Trailing by 19 points with less than 12 minutes to play, the Kats were probably close to the medium-well-done stage. But then they started playing the stifling defense that is their signature. A furious comeback followed, and their reward is a trip to Binghamton.
Middle Early College is not done yet.
The relieved Kats are heading to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Final Four after securing a sensational, 64-60 comeback victory against Rochester-private school C.G. Finney in the Class C boys basketball Far West Regional before a sellout crowd of 1,000.
Ja’kari Nettles led the comeback with 23 points and 23 rebounds. Senior teammate Tramelle Stevens had 10 points and 12 boards, and junior Keith Brown’s transition layup off a Jamond Jones steal and assist gave the Kats the lead for good with 2:19 left.
And when the final horn sounded, looks of pure joy and elation replaced what would have been certain misery and befuddlement on the faces of Kats players.
"It’s just a great feeling. I’m at a loss for words,” Nettles said.
“I’m happy for these kids and happy for myself and the coaching staff," coach James Kane said. "We’ve put in the hard work. It was a collaborative effort.”
Middle Early College trailed 49-30 with less than four minutes left in the third quarter. A trey by Devonte Prince (15 points) with 3:09 left in the quarter sparked what turned into a 34-11 game-closing run.
Middle Early College pulled within 49-43 on two free throws by Prince 79 seconds later as the Kats switched to a 2-2-1 that forced the ball out of the hands of Falcons point guard Keegan Ocorr. That led to missed baskets and turnovers – the perfect fuel to spark MEC.
“I talked to them at halftime, and I said, 'This isn’t conducive of the effort we’ve put in all year. We work hard every day and then for us to come out and not have a half in which we were working hard really goes against everything this team is about,’ " Kane said. "Then in the second half, we were able to turn it around, committed to getting stops on defense and just working hard.”
The Kats tied the game 53-53 with 6:35 left on Keyunte Jones’ layup off a Prince assist.
Finney surged ahead again, perhaps a sign Middle Early College spent itself rallying, as eighth-grader Markus Robinson scored five consecutive points – including a three-point play – to make it 58-53.
There was no denying the Kats, who pulled within one on a Nettles putback before Brown’s go-ahead layup for Middle Early College’s first lead since 3-0 in the first quarter.
“Once we got back in the game ... I had confidence in my guys we were going to pull it over,” Kane said.
The Kats finished with a 57-26 edge in rebounding, with Nettles grabbing 13 of the team’s 27 offensive boards.
Robertson led Finney with 25 points.
Middle Early College returns to action at 9 a.m. Saturday at Binghamton's Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena against II-Lake George.
"They scored 41 points in the first half which is unlike us," Kane said. "We’ve only given up 70 one time all season. ... Our intensity went up. That’s more our style. It took a while."
"Coach told us to keep our head up and play our game, get rebounds, gets stops and you'll be the best," Stevens said.