It’s not that the destination is disappointing. It’s just that often, the anticipation and journey to get there is one wild and unforgettable ride.
And that’s exactly what it was for the Marcus Whitman boys basketball team Tuesday night. The Wildcats battled back from a 10-point deficit, relished in the peak of a 16-point lead, then held off the fury of a rally that closed their lead to two points.
Ups and downs. Highs and lows. There was plenty of it all and once the smoke cleared, it was the Wildcats who came out on top of Avon, 63-51, in a packed Bloomfield gym in a Section V Class C1 semifinal. The win sends Whitman to its first Section V championship game since 1976, when Gerald Ford was still President, “Rocky” came out in theaters and ABBA was at the top of the music charts.
“For a young team, they stayed composed,” said coach Greg O’Connor, who was a senior on the last Marcus Whitman team to play at the War Memorial, the 2001 semifinals. “We stuck with it. Avon put some pressure on us early and we crumbled a bit. But I told the kids to keep your eyes up, stay calm and get to the ball.”
The part of the game that crumbled for Whitman was the first quarter. Avon built a 15-5 lead by crashing the boards and using a zone defense to frustrate Whitman’s shooters.
But the Wildcats opened the second quarter with a pair of Liam Prendergast baskets and a 3-pointer from Jon Donovan to get back into it and after Avon restored its lead to four, the Wildcats responded with a 9-0 run to close the second quarter for a 26-21 halftime lead.
The Wildcats and Braves traded baskets to open the third, then the Wildcats hit the gas. Donovan’s basket made it a 30-23 game and then Whitman not only ripped off four straight 3-pointers, three different players knocked them down.
Donovan, Seth Benedict, Aidan Royston and then Benedict again made it a 42-24 Whitman lead before Avon spent a timeout.
“Any one of those guys can lead that team,” Avon coach Rob Fries said. “They just got hot from the perimeter.”
That Avon timeout came with 4:40 left in the third quarter and whatever Fries said sparked something. The Wildcats scored just one more basket the rest of the quarter while the Braves found their groove and used a 16-2 run to make it a 44-40 game to start the fourth.
A running layup by Padraig Coyne cut Whitman’s lead to 44-42 and that’s as close as Avon could get. They pulled within two once more, then got to within three with 2:33 left on a 3-pointer by Connor Taylor.
From there, the Wildcats didn’t make another field goal. Instead, they went 9-for-12 from the free throw line in the final 2:13 while forcing four Avon turnovers in the final minute to seal the victory.
“We all just needed to work together and the communication was a big deal,” said Benedict. “It kept us cool under pressure.”
The coolness was needed early in the game, then again in the third to hold off the hard-charging Braves. And while the run of 3-pointers certainly helped, Donovan pointed to the grinding on defense, too.
“Those were huge, they gave us energy but we locked it down on defense, too and that helped,” he said.
Donovan and Benedict each scored 19 points with each scoring three 3-pointers. Noah Hildreth came off the bench to score seven and Prendergast scored eight.
Nick Rowland scored 18 for Avon and Taylor scored 13.
Whitman (20-2) advances to Friday’s Class C1 championship game against No. 3 Finney (18-3) for a 9 p.m. start at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.