JAMESTOWN — The Salamanca boys basketball team had seen Randolph too many times in big games to think the Cardinals would ever go down without a fight.
Even up 16 in the third quarter of a Section 6 Class C semifinal Monday night at Jamestown Community College, the lead wasn’t safe for the Warriors. Indeed, Randolph made its run, charging back to take a four-point lead in the fourth quarter. But this night, No. 4 Salamanca stood up to the late challenge with a shooting barrage of its own.
In the crucial stretch, Salamanca went from down 40-36 to leading 51-42 with 48 seconds remaining by making five straight 3-point attempts: two each by Harley Hoag and Andy Herrick and one deep pullup by Lucus Brown. Salamanca escaped a wild night with a 52-47 victory, clinching its first trip to the sectional championship game since 2001. It will play No. 2 Holland (17-5) in the title contest at 7:45 p.m. on Friday at JCC.
“They're our rivals and we have so much respect for Coach Hind and the program that he's built and the players on that team,” Salamanca coach Adam Bennett said. “We battle every year multiple times a year. We have more work to do, this is a great win in the semifinals, but these kids deserve it. They've worked really hard.
“I really think the league that we play in (CCAA West I) prepared us for this, prepared us to take that hit that we took in the fourth quarter and we were able to throw the final punch back. Had we not played the tough schedule that we did and the league that we did, I don't know if we could do that. But these guys have something special within them where they can sustain that and then go out and refocus and win the game. I couldn't be more proud.”
The Warriors didn’t make a 3-pointer in the first half, but a near-spotless defensive performance kept them ahead 18-10 at the break. Salamanca opened the second half making back-to-back treys, by Brown and Harley Hoag. They didn’t make another until they needed them in that deciding late stretch.
“We just trust the process, we've been saying it since day one, we trust what we've been working on,” Harley Hoag said. “Everything we've been doing, (Coach) Bennett, he always tells me load and lift, I was just thinking about that the last couple.”
Brown added, “Coach always kept saying, ‘keep shooting,’ ‘keep shooting.’ Nothing's going to hold me down from shooting.”
Harley, a senior forward, led the Warriors (15-7) with 18 points and grabbed five rebounds while Brown, a sophomore, scored 16 points with six boards. Herrick, a junior, scored eight points, all in the fourth quarter.
Senior Cole Hedlund grabbed eight boards and classmate Hayden Hoag made seven assists.
Bennett thought the Warriors took good shots in the first half; they just weren’t falling. But the shots went down when they needed them most.
Jaiden Huntington led Randolph with 19 points and senior center Gabe McCoy had 10 points. Huntington made three straight 3-pointers to charge the Cardinals’ fourth quarter comeback, the last one giving Randolph its first lead since the first quarter at 35-34.
Randolph ends its season at 20-2, with its only two losses coming at the hands of the Warriors. Randolph had the advantage in the rivalry for many years, but the two teams split in the regular season each of the last two years. Randolph coach Kevin Hind considers it an extremely tight matchup now and expects the Warriors could make a long postseason run.
“That was the hard part, knowing that if we played them tomorrow, we would win, if we played Thursday, they would win,” Hind said. “That's just where I feel we're at right now with our two teams. They beat us on the night that mattered.
“That adds a lot of pressure to me over the last day or two of knowing that if you get by this game, there's a good chance you're playing for two more weeks and who knows what happens then.”
Salamanca made its last sectional final appearance in 2001, a loss to Buffalo Traditional in the Class C-1 final. The Warriors have two Section 6 championships in program history, in 1966 and ‘68.
Bennett doesn’t think his team will dwell too much on the chance to make history on Friday.
“These kids, from day one, back in April, have really embraced the mantra of just getting better every day,” Bennett said. “So if we start thinking about what that means and what Friday could be, they're not like that, they're just going to try to get better tomorrow in practice, they're going to enjoy tonight, get better tomorrow, get better Wednesday and Thursday, prepare for the whoever the winner of (the other semifinal) is and then come out and play our best Friday. We really feel, we said it a bunch of times, we said if we do that and play our best, we have a chance against anybody.”
Still, it was an emotional night, with hugs on the sideline before the final buzzer and a release of excitement when it was over. But there’s still much for this group to play for with a win over Randolph in the books.
“At 12 o'clock tonight, we've got to forget about this,” Harley Hoag said. “That's what we said right in the locker room after the game, so that's what I'm thinking.”
Hedlund 4 0-0 8, Brown 7 0-0 16, Har. Hoag 5 5-8 18, Herrick 3 0-0 8, McLarney 1 0-0 2. Totals: 20 5-8 52.
Kelly 1 0-0 3, Hind 3 0-2 6, Nelson 1 0-0 3, Conley 2 0-0 6, McCoy 4 2-2 10, Huntington 7 1-1 19. Totals: 18 3-5 47.
Salamanca 8 16 32 52
Randolph 3 10 24 47
Three-point goals: Sala 7 (Har. Hoag 3, Brown 2, A. Herrick 2); Rand 8 (Huntington 4, Conley 2, Kelly, Nelson). Total fouls: Sala 11, Rand 14. Fouled out: None.