Devonte Prince, Jamond Jones and the rest of the Middle Early College boys basketball team know what it’s like to rally for victories against quality opponents even if the deficit seems insurmountable.
Remember, just last March, the Kats posted a stunning comeback win in the state quarterfinals over Section V champion C.G. Finney after trailing by 19 points with 12 minutes left.
With five seniors who played in that game on the court Friday night at East High School, the Kats didn’t flinch once they found themselves trailing by 11 with a lot more time left on the clock. They stayed the course, kept their composure and made East feel uncomfortable while rallying for a 61-56 triumph in a clash between two of the top teams in Yale Cup I.
Prince scored half of his game-high 24 points during the second quarter to keep Middle Early College within striking distance. Jones poured in 14 of his 21 points during the final 16 minutes as the Buffalo News’ top-ranked small school bounced back after trailing by scores of 20-9 and 29-19 late in the second quarter to remain unbeaten in league play at 7-0 with wins over potential contenders East, McKinley and South Park.
The Kats (7-3), last year’s state runner-up in Class C, have five league games left – starting with Wednesday’s rematch against East at Bennett High School.
Though they have lofty goals, their first task is to do what they must do to win their third straight Yale Cup. That includes playing tough defense, hitting the boards hard and, of course, staying calm regardless of game circumstances.
“That’s our mentality, if it goes bad, just stay calm, do what we do and we’ll right the ship,” Middle College coach James Kane said. “We’re trying to get off to faster starts, coming out slow in the first quarter has been our issue. … But I love the way the team battles back and always stays in the game.”
The Kats pulled within 30-27 with 30 seconds left in the first half on a trey by Prince. But East’s David Hughes countered with a three of his own just before the halftime horn.
The Panthers defeated Middle College on their home floor last year, one of just two league defeats by the Kats.
Middle College made sure that didn’t happen again as Jones, the reigning Yale Cup Player of the Year, got into a groove.
He went coast-to-coast twice – the second after a steal – to pull his team within 34-31. After senior Jaedin Cottman’s layup, Jones’ runner gave the Kats the lead. He then made a long pass to an open Keith Brown under the basket for a layup.
“This year we were able to keep our composure, … get stops in the third quarter and just control the game from there,” Jones said.
Jeremy McKitchen drained a three to tie it for East, but Prince scored four straight points to give Middle College a little cushion. Jones’ two free throws late in the third broke a 41-41 tie.
Prince picked up his fourth foul before the end of the quarter.
At that point, he was one of three Middle College players with four fouls. Kane kept Prince in the game and he rewarded his coach’s faith by draining a huge quarter-ending three.
Prince, who came in averaging 15.3 points, never picked up his fifth and disqualifying foul.
“He’s been huge for us all year,” Kane said. “We knew we were going to need the offense. His shooting ability. He completely changes our offense and brings the defense out. It’s essential we have him in the game. … We had to play him with four fouls and take the risk of him fouling out. Luckily he was smart enough not to pick up his fifth. It ended up winning us the game.”
“My team depends on me to distribute and score, so I create shots for me and others,” Prince said. “Right there I just knew we needed a shot, so I shot it and it went in.”
Middle College took the lead for good with 2:02 left on a three-pointer by Jones.
That was the sixth and final lead change of a back-and-forth fourth quarter that also featured three ties and could’ve been filled by more points from East. However, the Panthers’ struggles at the free-throw line finally bit them. East (7-4, 5-2) missed 16 free throws, including a 1-for-4 stretch to open the second half and four straight misses inside the final two minutes while trailing by two.
“It’s been our M.O. all season, miss 12-13 free throws,” said Panthers coach Starling Bryant. “Our offensive execution wasn’t really good. Their defensive pressure took us out of everything we wanted to do. They took us out of our offense and we couldn’t make free throws. ... If you can’t make free throws, that’s what happens.”
In other news, Bryant said East will face Health Sciences at 6 p.m. Jan. 27 at Canisius College to open a doubleheader in which Park faces St. Joe’s in the 7:30 p.m. tilt.