BINGHAMTON – The looks on the faces of Middle Early College players and coaches told the story.
The Kats fell behind again. Unlike past playoff games, the hole became too difficult for them to claw their way out of in Floyd L. Maines Memorial Arena on Sunday.
As a result, Middle Early College's quest to add to its state championship collection during its relatively short existence came up short. Cooperstown seized control late in the first quarter and never trailed from that point as the Hawkeyes won their first state crown, 71-61, in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Class C final.
Tournament MVP Jack Lambert led the charge for Cooperstown with 23 points and seven assists. His performance followed Saturday’s state tournament-record 53-point effort in a triple overtime win over XI-Greenport.
An estimated 1,500 watched as Cooperstown (24-2) had all the answers for what MEC threw at it. The Kats’ trapping scheme that caused opponents problems did little to slow down the Section III champions, who had it well scouted.
“They got off to a hot start,” Middle College coach James Kane said. “We talked about finding our defensive identity early. We obviously didn’t do that. They beat us on the basketball court, moved the ball well. Lambert, he was open for two seconds and he had the ball through the hoop for three points. ... We should have had a better game plan to take him out of the game.”
“Today it was just lack of communication,” MEC senior Traemelle Stevens-Richardson said. “We came out ready to play. It just didn’t go our way.”
The sizzling shooting that helped propel MEC into the state final wasn’t bad Sunday (43 percent), but nowhere near the 50 percent it shot Saturday. The Kats had some issues against the lengthy zone defense, mostly due to 6-foot-8 sophomore John Kennedy serving as an intimidating rim protector.
Kennedy finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Senior Ja’Kari Nettles led Middle College (22-4) with 19 points, and Devonte Prince added 15. They were the only Kats in double figures, unlike their semifinal win when they spread the wealth and had four players in double figures, including top scorer Jamond Jones. Jones finished Sunday with five points, 12 under his season average, on just 2 of 7 shooting.
Trailing 9-7, Cooperstown switched from full-court pressure to zone defense with Kennedy in the middle midway through the first quarter. It proved to be a wise move as the Hawkeyes scored the next 14 points with Kennedy bullying his way for four, opening things up for Lambert, who drained a pair of 3-pointers.
From that point, the Kats flirted with furiously rallying only to have efforts blunted by Cooperstown players alternating hitting big shots. MEC’s trapping schemes, which fueled a comeback win from a 19-point deficit in a state quarterfinal win over C.G. Finney and the game-deciding 14-0 run in the state semifinal against Lake George, didn’t work against the Hawkeyes.
“They were patient, they weren’t gambling on loose balls or passes,” Nettles said.
The Kats were trying to win their third state title in their 11th season as a program.
The seniors thought it was their time to go out leaving their own legacy for others to follow.
They got to a state final. That’s something to appreciate down the road.
But not right now.
“It was just a heart-breaking loss,” Nettles said. “I was expecting to come out with a win but you can’t always just expect it. You have to work to get what you need.”
“That’s just the game of basketball. It’s a one and done,” Kane said. “I feel, overall, we could take that team majority of the time, but in basketball, all it takes is one game. We didn’t show up for this game and it ended up hurting us.”