By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — TROY — Agonizing.
From Oneonta High’s standpoint, there’s simply no other word to describe the ending of Friday’s Class B girls basketball state semifinal at Hudson Valley Community College.
At game’s conclusion, the scoreboard high above center court stubbornly read: Irvington 55, Oneonta 53.
Its accuracy cannot be questioned, but it didn’t come close to telling this story. Scoreboards never do.
But the tears streaming freely from a group of Yellowjackets that twice came within inches in the final seconds from forcing the three-time defending state champions into overtime were proof that this one stung.
“There’s not any consolation to losing and the girls are hurting right now,” OHS coach Matt Miller said, “but when you look at the team we lost to, it’s somewhat encouraging to know we competed with the best team in the state and had a chance to tie it up at the end.”
In reality, the Yellowjackets had two golden chances to tie it over the final three-or-so seconds.
Though OHS’ Mariah Ruff added yet another memorable chapter to her standout junior season, there’s one shot she said she’d like to have back.
The play started when she ripped down the last of her seven rebounds with about 10 seconds left after an ill-advised shot by Bulldogs star center Lexi Martins. With the Yellowjackets down by two, Ruff raced down the middle of the floor. With an Irvington defender waiting at the free throw line, Ruff simply veered right and continued toward the basket.
A tying basket seemed inevitable.
“The way things went that last three seconds and for that layup not to be a foul and for (Ruff) not to be on the line with probably an and-1, someone up there was definitely helping us out,” Martins said.
Ruff drew contact as she went up. The ball hit the backboard and rolled gently from the left side of the rim to the right side before falling out. Teammate Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering grabbed the miss, but her attempt from the right side almost mirrored Ruff’s. That miss also curled off to the right, and the 6-foot-2 Vanderlaan-Meyering again grabbed the rebound and tried to go back up. She drew heavy contact as her second putback attempt was blocked, winding up on her back as the buzzer sounded.
The officials called no foul.
“I should have made the layup,” said Ruff, who finished with game highs of 26 points and eight assists. “That’s my fault. There was definitely contact, but I shouldn’t have missed it. I should have just made it.”
But to blame Ruff for this loss would be like blaming Santa Claus for coming only once a year.
She spearheaded a rally from a 13-point halftime deficit, scoring 21 points in a second half chock full of three-pointers, driving layups and turnaround jumpers.
“She’s great,” Irvington coach Gina Maher said of Ruff, who scored her 1,000th point in an OHS uniform early in the fourth quarter. “She’ll be playing college ball some day at a real good school. She’s excellent. She’s really hard to defend. She can hit from the outside as well as the inside and she has a really good supporting cast.”
Even before Friday’s tip, there seemed to be so many reasons the Yellowjackets were ill-equipped to deal with these Bulldogs.
To start, one can point to Irvington’s three straight state titles — a run that started with a 54-33 state championship win over OHS in 2010. The Bulldogs also had four key players back from a squad that beat all state-tournament opponents by double figures en route to New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Federation titles last season, including Division I recruits Martins (Lehigh) and speedy point guard Brittni Lai (Marist).
“We have nothing to be ashamed of,” a teary-eyed Ruff said. “They’re No. 1. No one thought we were ever going to be that close to them and we were within a basket of them. We missed a few box-outs we should have had, but we all fought.”
Following a 12-all standoff in the first quarter, Irvington appeared poised to turn this one into a laugher in the second.
The Yellowjackets (20-2) turned the ball over repeatedly, hit one field goal and went 2-for-8 from the free throw line — including the front end of two 1-and-1s — en route to being outscored, 17-4.
“Our offense went stagnant with the dribble and we weren’t attacking,” Miller said of his team’s second-quarter struggles. “It was a lot of East- and West-type dribbling. We weren’t getting good ball movement with the passes either, and when you’re not moving the ball, it’s easy to defend. They went on a good run. They got stops and then scored on the other end.”
It took the Bulldogs about 2 ½ minutes to turn a 14-all tie into a 25-14 lead.
Lai hit a short pull-up jumper along the baseline, Martins put back her own miss, Alyssa DiCampli made an uncontested layup off an inbound play, Lai swished a three from the right wing, and the powerful Martins ended the run by putting back her miss again.
“I think we played much better defense in the second quarter than we did in any other quarter and good defense leads to good offense,” Maher said. “We took them out of sync. We wanted to get them out of sync, especially Mariah. If we could get her a little bit out of sync, then maybe we could get the rest of the team of out of sync, because this team sort of goes the way she goes. Thank God for the second quarter.”
Minnie Webster briefly stopped Irvington’s momentum by turning a steal into a layup 1:55 before halftime, but Martins scored inside over Vanderlaan-Meyering and then hit a driving layup as the Bulldogs took a 29-16 advantage into halftime.
About the only bright spot for OHS in the second quarter was that Lai was whistled for her third foul 1:25 before halftime. Lai, who scored a team-high 20 points, closely guarded Ruff throughout the first half and limited her to five points.
To start the second half, Maher called on Lauren Chafizdeh to guard Ruff — a move the Yellowjackets’ point guard apparently found to her liking.
Ruff scored 12 points in the third quarter as OHS outscored the Bulldogs, 22-12, to pull to 41-38.
Before the second half was two minutes old, Ruff equaled her output in the first half. She hit a three from left of the key and then a driving layup, the latter making the score 31-21.
But Irvington answered with four straight points, taking its biggest lead — at 35-21 — on a fastbreak layup by Chafizdeh with 5 ½ minutes left in the quarter.
A 13-4 OHS run ensued, including eight points by Hayley Dower that came over a span of 2:05.
Dower hit a pair of wing threes and then made a 17-footer off the dribble, that basket making it 39-33 with a 1:30 left in the quarter.
“We were just pushing the ball quickly,” Dower said of Oneonta’s big third quarter. “We got some open shots and we were moving the ball.”
When Ruff hit a three from left of the key, Oneonta’s deficit was 39-36 with 45 seconds left in the third.
But Ruff saved what was perhaps her prettiest basket of the day for the end of the quarter. With Lai back-guarding her, Ruff showed off her ball-handling skills, going between the legs and using several crossover dribbles before beating Lai down the right side of the lane for a layup just before the quarter buzzer. That basket, much to the delight of the heavy throng of OHS supporters in attendance, made the score 41-38.
OHS crept to 43-42 on a turnaround jumper in the lane by Ruff with 5:10 left.
Then Lai took over for the next 2 ½ minutes. She hit two free throws with 5:02 left, scored on a driving layup with 4:30 to go and blocked a Ruff three-point attempt, which led to a 14-footer off glass in the lane by Laurilyn Gelardi. Her basket made it 49-42 with four minutes remaining.
Again, the Yellowjackets rallied.
Ruff hit another turnaround in the lane with 2:43 to go to make it a five-point spread. After Martins hit a free throw with 2:26 left, Ruff made a steal on the defensive end and then drew Lai’s fifth foul at 1:59 mark.
“It’s tough to play a close game in general, but to have our star point guard on the bench — once we pulled that one out I went to her and said you can never do that to us again,” Martins of Lai’s fouling out. “Brittni leads us in so many ways.”
Nineteen seconds later, Ruff reversed a pass to Webster on the left wing. Webster swished the three to make it 50-47.
The Yellowjackets’ next basket sent Oneonta’s fans into a frenzy.
Dower penetrated into the lane and then kicked a pass out to Kelsey Baker. The senior forward, who had hit one three-pointer during the season, swished a rainbow three from the top of the key to tie the score at 50 with about a minute left.
What followed was maybe the most frustrating five seconds of basketball the Yellowjackets have played this season.
Martins went to the line with 44.8 seconds left. She hit the first free throw and missed the second but grabbed the rebound and went strong to the basket. Her left-handed layup attempt was too strong, but Baker was whistled for fouling DiCampli away from the play. It marked Baker’s fifth foul, ending her 10-point day.
DiCampli went to the line with 40.7 seconds left and hit the first free throw. Like Martins, DiCampli’s second free throw resulted in a long carom, and she tracked it down along the right wing. DiCampli was fouled by Ruff with 39.4 seconds left.
“At the end of a game like that, ball security and possessions are crucial — especially when you have to foul,” Miller said. “They were great misses by Irvington from the foul line, long rebounds. (Martins) gets so much attention, but we did have box-out assignments. The girl responsible for the box out (on the shooter) unfortunately was on the same side the ball came out.”
Added Maher: “I’m a rebound nut. I’m a fanatic about rebounds and we work really hard on it. Tonight’s game was won by rebounds.”
DiCampli again made 1 of 2 free throws, giving the Bulldogs a 53-50 lead.
Webster misfired on Oneonta’s next possession, and the Yellowjackets sent Martins to the line with 22.5 seconds remaining. Martins hit 1 of 2 from the line for a 54-50 lead, but Ruff rushed the ball up court and hit a three from right of the circle, cutting Oneonta’s deficit to 54-53 with 16.6 ticks left.
With 15.9 seconds to go, Sierra Sangetti-Daniels fouled Martins, who hit the first free throw. She missed the second, but DiCampli again grabbed the rebound and passed to Martins, who missed a short shot in the lane.
“Now I’m thinking, what a stupid move,” said Martins, who had 18 points. “It would have been smarter to pull it out. Nine times out of 10, I make that layup.”
That set up the final sequence.
“We proved we belonged here and went head-to-head with the best team in New York state and unfortunately just came out on the wrong side of it,” Miller said.
Of Ruff’s play, Miller said: “I think everybody in the building can make their own assumptions. She’ll be a Division I player as well and she proved if those two (Martins and Lai) are D-I players that she’s on their level.”
Ruff’s 1,000th point at OHS came on a free throw with 5:45 left. She finished the season with 1,008 points over three seasons at OHS. She has 1,511 varsity points overall, including two seasons at Andes as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
She joins Stacy Knapp (1,007), Tiffany Hurley (1,045), Madie Harlem (1,161), Sienna Wisse (1,217) and Krissy Zeh (1,698) in the Yellowjackets’ 1,000-point club.
“All the seniors — Kelsey, Nat, Hayley and Minnie — they said (at halftime) we’re not losing without a fight,” said Ruff, an all-tournament selection. “If we lose, it’s going to be by one or two. Hayley knocked down some big shots, so did Kelsey. I’m so proud of my team. We all stuck it out.”
Irvington will play Section Five’s Waterloo in the state final at 4 p.m. Saturday. Waterloo (23-1) beat Salmon River, 65-53, in Friday’s second Class B semifinal at HVCC.
Irvington 55, Oneonta 53
CLASS B STATE SEMIFINAL
at Hudson Valley Community College
Number before team indicates section
4-ONEONTA (20-2): Hayley Dower 3-4 0-0 8, Minnie Webster 2-6 0-0 5, Kelsey Baker 3-9 3-6 10, Mariah Ruff 9-20 4-7 26, Sierra Sangetti-Daniels 1-1 0-0 2, Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering 1-4 0-1 2, Maria DiMartin 0-0 0-1 0. TOTALS: 19-44 7-15 53.
1-IRVINGTON (22-2): Laurilyn Gelardi 2-3 0-0 4, Ryan McMahon 2-9 0-0 4, Lauren Chafizdeh 1-4 0-0 2, Alyssa DiCampli 2-10 3-6 7, Lexi Martins 5-16 8-13 18, Brittni Lai 7-13 3-5 20. TOTALS: 19-55 14-24 55.
Oneonta 12 4 22 17 — 53
Irvington 12 17 12 14 — 55
Three-point field goals: O 8-15 (Dower 2-2, Webster 1-2, Baker 1-3, Ruff 4-8); I 3-14 (McMahon 0-5, Chafizdeh 0-1, DiCampli 0-2, Lai 3-6).
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.