NIAGARA FALLS – It’s easy to see now why coach Sal Constantino believed during the offseason before the Niagara Falls boys basketball team had even played a game that the crew had a chance at accomplishing something special.
• They have quite the talented backcourt led by potential Division I prospect in freshman Willie Lightfoot and a solid frontcourt headed by sophomore Jalen Bradberry. They’re experienced, battle-tested underclassmen.
• The Wolverines also are in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class AA final four – two wins away from earning the right to be called state champions.
They have scoreboard on everyone who may not have seen this coming.
Niagara Falls faces Section III champion West Genesee at 5 p.m. Friday in the first of two Class AA semifinal contests at Floyd L. Maines Arena in Binghamton. The championship game is at 9 p.m. Saturday.
It didn’t look on paper things would be that rosy for Niagara Falls at this time last year after it had fallen in the state quarterfinals for the third straight season. Falls stood to lose four players via graduation or transfer, athletes who accounted for 85 percent of the team’s scoring. No matter how one looks at that, that’s a lot – even with a potential Division I prospect returning in Lightfoot.
But the sudden closing of Niagara Catholic High School last June after the Patriots had captured the Manhattan Cup Class B championship wound up not just impacting the fortunes of recently crowned state Catholic Class B champion Cardinal O’Hara but also Niagara Falls.
While there usually isn’t a shortage of talent in the Wolverines’ den, they reloaded in adding a Manhattan Cup Class B playoff MVP and fourth-team All-WNY pick in Bradberry from Catholic along with his teammates Jaemon and Jaden Turner.
“Jalen’s probably one of the best scorers in Western New York,” Lightfoot said.
“When Jalen (Bradberry) and Jaemon came in and we had to replace 85 percent of scoring ... those two took the bull by horns,” Constantino said.
Yes, they have.
Bradberry is averaging 20 points per game with 6 rebounds, while Jaemon Turner averages 11 points, four assists and three steals.
The additions, combined with the return of Lightfoot (18.0 ppg and 6.0 apg) helped produce the Wolverines’ fourth straight Section VI title and the program’s first trip to the state semifinal since 2009.
Why did Constantino believe his team had a chance to make a postseason run?
With basketball being a year-round sport for most of its players, Constantino got a glimpse into the future during the summer watching potential Wolverines on the AAU circuit.
“You kind of know what you have coming back,” Constantino said. “I thought we have the potential to win it all.
“I guess you could call us young but Willie’s in his second year of varsity ball. Jalen’s in his third year. Those young guys have played in big games. ... But it doesn’t surprise me. The kids have grown up in the same neighborhood, playing basketball forever.”
But will this be their year?
The state tournament in Class AA is a totally different animal compared to the lower classifications. The skill level and speed in which plays are executed are extraordinary.
“It’s an absolute beast,” said longtime Buffalo News pollster Chad Andrews of the View from Centercourt, who is a regular at the state and Federation tournaments. “The teams you see in the state final four, you’ll look at them and be like, ‘Good God, are these guys college players?’ ”
There’s a reason why only one Section VI team (Niagara Falls in 2005) has ever won a state title in Class AA with only one other joining Falls in reaching a final more than once (Jamestown).
“Things just have to really come together,” said longtime Jamestown coach Ben Drake. “The first year we won in overtime against Irondequoit (in the regionals). We were two evenly matched teams. That was the first year we were able to get past Niagara Falls. ... It’s obviously an accomplishment to be able to get to final four but particularly in AA.”
“I really try to let the moment be about this group of kids,” Constantino said. “It’s been so long since we’ve been there. This is so much more about them than me. This is their time.”