By Andy Jacobs
With a pair of one-point victories in their previous two sectional playoff games, including a remarkable fourth-quarter comeback in the semifinals, the Briarcliff Bears appeared to have destiny on their side.
But on Saturday evening at Yorktown High School, destiny was denied.
Top-seeded Bronxville jumped out to an early 9-1 lead and never looked back, convincingly defeating the second-seeded Bears 66-49 in the Section 1, Class B championship game before a standing-room-only crowd that filled nearly every inch of the gym. Tournament MVP Chris Kelty finished with a game-high 17 points as the Broncos put an end to their four-decades-long hoop title drought.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to Bronxville,” said Bears head coach Nick Friedman, shortly after sadly watching the Broncos celebrate with the Gold Ball. “They played absolutely great. They kicked our butts and they deserved to win. They shot the ball really well and that can happen. I just didn’t think our defense was championship level tonight. We’re definitely capable of defending better than that.”
Just eight seconds into the contest, Bronco guard Sean McGrath provided a hint of things to come when he dropped in an 18-foot pullup jumper from right of the key. Before the game was even three minutes old, McGrath connected on three long jumpers and Bronxville had an eight-point lead. With the feisty guard erupting for 12 of his 15 points in the first quarter, the Broncos built an 18-8 advantage.
The Bears turned the ball over six times in the opening quarter, four of them coming in the first two minutes, and their deficit grew to 12 points when the Broncos’ Conor O’Neil scored the first bucket of the second period. But then two free throws by Elliot Jones started an 8-0 Briarcliff run that was capped off by five quick points from Jayden Larregue.
A 3-pointer by Saad Hussain with 3:14 remaining in the quarter brought the Bears to within 24-19, but they never scored again the rest of the half and retreated to the locker room trailing by seven.
Asked later about his team’s cold shooting and early turnovers, Friedman said, “That’s part of it, but it’s always defense for us. If we’re playing like we’re supposed to on defense, then those errors don’t happen on offense because we’re playing fast and free and loose. I just really think our defense was the reason the game got away from us.”
Bronxville opened up a 28-19 lead early in the second half before Ben Siegel, who along with Luke McCann led the Bears with 13 points, made a steal and then weaved his way through traffic for a lefty scoop in the lane. Briarcliff then got as close as 35-31 with just under three minutes left in the third quarter after a 3-point shot by Rai-shan Hall from the left wing.
But the Broncos answered with a 7-0 spurt, fueled by a layup from O’Neil and then two more by Kelty, who had 15 of his points after intermission. With five seconds to go in the third quarter, Siegel cut to the basket, received a pass from Hall, and scored to send Briarcliff to the fourth trailing 42-33.
Just 30 seconds into the final quarter, Larregue fired up a trey from left of the key that bounced in, reducing the Bears’ deficit to just six points. Kelty then drove the left baseline for a basket, but the Bears closed to within six again when Larregue made two free throws with 7:09 remaining in the game.
That’s as close as the Bears would get, though, as Bronxville, which had lost at Briarcliff by four points back in mid-January, exploded for 22 points over the final seven minutes. A short baseline jumper by McCann with 5:05 on the clock narrowed the Bronco lead to 51-40, but 16 seconds later McGrath drained a long pullup jumper from well beyond the arc left of the key.
Despite late 3-pointers from Evan Van Camp, Larregue and Jones, the Bears were unable to get any closer than 10 points and Bronxville, which got eight fourth-quarter points from Finn Ruhanen and seven more from Kelty, was soon celebrating its first sectional title since 1982.
“When the kid, McGrath, hit a 3 from half-court to go up 14 with a couple minutes, looking back it kind of felt like that might’ve been the kill shot,” said Friedman, who was nonetheless impressed by the ambiance created in Yorktown’s newly refurbished gym.
“The atmosphere was great,” he said. “We couldn’t hear each other. Yorktown did a really great job hosting. I don’t know, the County Center is special, but this was an awesome environment.”
That awesome environment was something it seemed the Bears were going to miss out on when they found themselves trailing third-seeded Hastings 41-25 late in the third quarter of last Wednesday’s semifinal game. But a spectacular block by Larregue of Yellow Jacket star Josh Thigpen’s layup attempt with 1:40 left in the period set in motion a stirring revival by the host Bears.
“When he made that play, it definitely gave us life, our fans life, and was one of the turning points,” said Friedman, whose team still trailed 43-30 at the start of the fourth quarter before going on a 15-2 run and tying the game when McCann rattled in a 3-pointer from the left wing with just over two minutes remaining.
A free throw by Siegel with 3.6 seconds on the clock broke a 50-50 tie and provided the winning margin that sent the Bears, who finished their season 16-7, into the Class B championship game, a feat that once seemed unlikely to their coach.
“We started 5 and 5 and really had a gauntlet of a schedule,” said Friedman. “But the second half of the year, we played great. So I’m really proud of our group and the way they responded. At 5 and 5, you don’t think you’re gonna be in a sectional final game battling for a Gold Ball. So in that regard, the kids have a lot to be proud of.”
Andy is a sports editor at Examiner Media, covering seven high schools in the mid-Westchester region with a notebook and camera. He began there in the fall of 2007 following 15 years as a candid photographer for the largest school picture company in the tri-state area.