Amherst has earned many important victories at the Buffalo State Sports Arena over the years, but the Tigers may have earned their most impressive one given the circumstances Thursday night.
Down five players, including two starters, Amherst guards Jaylen Stewart, Nick O’Neil and Nick Moore took turns hitting big shot after big shot as the top-seeded Tigers rallied to defeat No. 5 East, 73-66, in the first of two Section VI Class A-2 semifinal contests at Buffalo State Sports Arena.
Stewart, O’Neil and Moore combined for 59 points and 12 of their team’s 14 3-pointers as Amherst advanced to its eighth sectional final in nine years.
“It’s a big accomplishment for us, making our coach proud,” said Stewart, who scored 16 of his game-high 26 points during the second half. “We came in short and people doubted us. Next man up and they stepped up. … This was a huge win for us.”
The Tigers (17-5) face the second-seeded Health Sciences Falcons (21-1) for the crown at 7 p.m. Saturday at Buffalo State.
Health Sciences, the Buffalo News’ top-ranked large school, used its defense to turn a tie game into a rout in blink of an eye during an 82-58 victory over No. 6 seed South Park.
Championship Week hits the title-game stage beginning Friday at Jamestown Community College with the Class D, C-2 and C-1 finals tripleheader beginning at 5:15 p.m. The title games in Classes AA, A-1 A-2, B-1 and B-2 are Saturday at Buffalo State Sports Arena with the B-2 kicking off the basketball smorgasbord at noon.
Amherst is on the menu again, thanks to its depth and outside shooting.
The Tigers had five players, including two starters, sit out the semifinal because they served one-game suspensions for their roles in last Friday’s bench-clearing melee, sparked by a hard foul delivered upon Myles Cooper, in a quarterfinal win over Williamsville South.
With the Panthers’ defense focused on trying to slow down Stewart, Moore and O’Neil took turns burning East. Moore, a freshman, wound up being the ‘X’ factor. Though he normally he starts, he shot more and more than tripled his 5.1 points-per-game average by finishing with 16 points. Fifteen of those came from 3-point land. His final triple came with 2 minutes, 2 seconds left during to cap an 11-3 blitz.
Stewart started that run with a three. Senior-classmate O’Neil, who scored 11 of his 17 points after halftime, followed with an in-rhythm three off a screen that gave Amherst the lead for good.
“Nick is a great player. I know I can count on him every time he has the ball,” Stewart said.
East trailed 65-63 after Jaiden Green hit two free throws, but with a minute left another unsung hero for the Tigers delivered a mighty blow as wide-open Gavin Warren drained a corner three – shooting without hesitation.
“I’m just very proud of our guys,” Tigers coach Chris Kensy said. “We faced adversity all throughout this year so far and we rose to the occasion tonight. … There was enthusiasm on the bench, there was enthusiasm on the floor and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“They were better shooters,” East coach Starling Bryant said. “They were just a little more athletic than we were and a little quicker. … I give them credit. They were short-handed but those guards stepped up and shot the lights out.”
Danny Carter led the Panthers with 21 points, while Jeremy McKitchen hit four of his five threes for the game during the first half en route to a 19-point showing.
East led by as much as 15 early in the second quarter, but the Tigers canned five 3-pointers the rest of the frame with O’Neil’s starting the onslaught. Moore had three of them. Amherst trailed at halftime, 38-33.
“Everybody just started playing with more energy,” Moore said. “My teammates drove and kicked. I knew if I got the shot I would knock some down.”
Health Sciences now will attempt to win its third championship in four years, as the Falcons quickly dashed South Park’s hopes of reaching its third final in four years.
With the game tied 5-5 with under 4 minutes left in the first quarter, the Falcons dialed it up defensively, forcing six steals and two misses, en route to closing the quarter on a 19-3 blitz.
The ‘D’ picked up after Tyler Smith’s 3-pointer broke the tie. A steal by Ja’Vaughn Jones led to a free throw by Deciaire Riley. Riley followed with a layup that forced the Sparks to take a timeout.
That failed to slow down the Falcons as a steal by Smith led to a layup by Jones. Jones followed with a steal to set up a Jabari Spencer basket. Smith made another steal leading to a runner by Riley.
Another theft by Smith led to the senior keeping it himself and stuffing home the one-handed jam in transition. Riley ended the onslaught with a three.
“We came in with strong energy, from the get go,” Spencer said. “We knew we had to play hard to get the win. We’re just playing as hard as we could, getting defensive stops and transition buckets.”
“They had to get the jitters out the first couple of minutes,” Falcons coach Tyree Parker said. “Once they got in a groove I kind of knew they would get rolling."
Jones had 19 points as he was one of four Health Sciences players in double-figures. Riley and Spencer each finished with 15 points, and Smith had 10. Yeshua Lee came in off the bench to score all eight of his points during the second quarter as nine different players scored for the Falcons.
Anthony Mack scored a game-high 22 points for South Park (13-10), while Davon White added 16.