By Danny Lopriore
Miles Jones grabbed his championship moment Sunday afternoon, scoring 11 of his game-high 15 points in a second-quarter surge to lead Briarcliff to a 48-39 victory over Blind Brook in the Section 1, Class B championship game at Pace University.
The senior-laden Bears, who won their second title in the last three years, were tested early until Jones took over the offense in the second quarter. Just a junior, Jones hit three consecutive 3-pointers and a slashing drive to the hoop to lift the Bears from a one-point lead to a 28-15 advantage at halftime.
Briarcliff (20-4), the third-seed, advanced to the state regional round and was scheduled to meet Section 9 champion Marlboro on Tuesday night at Mount St. Mary College in upstate Newburgh. Fourth-seeded Blind Brook finished with a record of 18-5.
“The first 3-pointer came in the flow,” said Jones, who also had eight rebounds. “Usually we go inside first, but the offense stalled. They’d reach in on defense and caused some turnovers. They were running J.R. (Jack Ryan) off the 3-point line. That left me open and I can step back and shoot at a decent range. After the second one hit, the rim looked like the ocean and they kept falling. That opened the drive to the basket.”
Senior Spencer McCann controlled the area under the basket on both ends, gathering 11 rebounds and making four big blocks while scoring seven points for the Bears. Briarcliff also dominated the boards, outrebounding the Trojans 36-24.
“That game last year was still on my mind for a while, so this is very satisfying for us to get back here,” McCann said, referring to last year’s loss to Pleasantville in the title game. “This group is the tightest group we’ve had all three years I’ve been here. Everything begins with our defense. That’s the first thing every year. You can win games with defense.”
The defense forced the Trojans to shoot from the perimeter, where they could manage only one 3-pointer in 15 tries, while the Bears hit 6 of 11 and used their superior size inside.
Briarcliff senior Jackson Gonseth had 10 points and seven rebounds despite fouling out late in the fourth quarter. The big man had seven points in the first quarter to help his team keep pace and was named tournament Most Valuable Player for his work over the semifinal and final games.
“It’s unbelievable, honestly. I can’t put into words how happy I am and proud of my teammates,” Gonseth said. “It feels natural. I do want to say we were sure we were going to win, but we worked our [butts] off to get here again, so we needed to win. I think we have the ability to go much further.”
The Bears relied on their defense, which has been consistent throughout the playoffs, holding the Trojans to 15 first-half points, then battled through the second half when both teams fought for each basket.
“I could have been a little better with some of the rough stuff inside, but our guys stay calm through the tough spots,” Gonseth said. “I think it showed maturity, especially Miles, Spencer and Jack (Ryan).”
The Bears extended their 13-point halftime lead to 40-26 going into the fourth quarter, but did leave some points on the free-throw line, making just 12 of 22. The Trojans hit 8 of 14, but missed three of their last six in the fourth quarter while outscoring the Bears 13-8 in the period.
Briarcliff earned its fourth straight trip to the Class B finals with a hard-earned 55-43 victory over Irvington last Monday at the Westchester County Center.
Ryan, a senior guard, who was named to the All-Tournament team along with Gonseth, led the team with 18 points. Gonseth scored 15 points and McCann grabbed nine rebounds for the Bears.
“The defense came up big in the fourth quarter and that has been there for us all year,” Ryan said. “Tucker (Wexler) gave us a big boost and we got through. We are focused on finishing the season strong.”
The Bears showed their determination and balance, led by reserve Wexler, who scored six points from the late third quarter into the fourth, helping turn a narrow 34-33 margin into a 12-point win.
“It was the seniors’ last game at the County Center and we wanted to go out winning here,” Wexler said as he waited to get into the locker room at the County Center following the game. “I had some opportunities to get good looks at the basket. Everyone on this team contributes. I’m excited to get another chance to win a championship.”
Jones, who was a freshman bench player when the Bears won the title in 2016, said he could appreciate this year’s success much more as the Bears looked ahead to the goal of a state title.
“Compared to my freshman year when I didn’t play that much, this is amazing because I really didn’t understand the meaning of it all then,” he said. “We’re not done yet though. This is a great moment for our team, but we have more to do.”