OTEGO – If you were in Unatego’s packed gymnasium Friday night, you had to know.
Even has the hosts built a 14-point lead in the opening half, you had to know.
Even has the Spartans maintained a 12-point lead with 6 ½ minutes left, you had to know.
“They always come back,” Unatego junior Tanner Winchester said after scoring a game-high 26 points in Unatego’s 62-60 victory over Sidney in a Midstate Athletic Conference boys basketball semifinal. “It’s always close between us. Even if you go up by 10, you know they’re going to punch you back.”
In a guard-oriented game between teams that had no players taller than 6-foot-3, Winchester and backcourt mate Kellen Komenda proved to be too much for the Warriors.
Komenda hit four threes en route to 23 points.
“We shot it very well from three-point range,” first-year Unatego coach Cal Locke said of his team’s 7-for-13 accuracy from behind the arc. “By far, that’s the best percentage we’ve shot this year. Sidney is a quality team and extremely well coached, and they make it difficult to get those open looks. I did think we moved the ball well to get some open shots.”
Top-seeded Unatego (11-6) will play third-seeded Unadilla Valley (13-4) – a 65-57 winner over Greene in the other semifinal – in the MAC final Feb. 15 at Oneonta State. The Spartans are looking for their third straight league championship – the first two coming in victories over Sidney, including a 53-50 triumph last year.
When Winchester drove left and hit an off-balance shot off glass with 6:45 to go, the Spartans had a 47-35 lead.
Winchester also started the fourth quarter with a spinning drive in the lane.
“When you hit some shots, they really come out and jump, so you can just get to the rim easily and hopefully draw a foul,” said Winchester, whose night included an 11-for-15 performance from the line.
Two free throws by Winchester with 6:13 to play gave the Spartans a 49-38 lead.
That’s when the Warriors (7-9) began to chip away.
Wyatt McKee, largely absent on the offensive end in the first half, scored inside with 5:50 minutes left and then Billy Kozak hit a three from the left wing in transition as Sidney’s deficit narrowed to 49-43 with 5:18 to play.
Things started to get real interesting after Winchester hit a free throw with 4:01 left that extended Unatego’s lead to 52-46.
Kozak, who had a team-high 20 points, hit a 24-footer from the left side to halve Sidney’s deficit at 52-49 with 3:05 remaining. But before Sidney’s fans could finish celebrating, Winchester found Komenda open on the right wing. Komenda’s three-pointer restored Unatego’s lead at 55-49 with 2:50 left.
Ten seconds later, Sidney’s Nick Meno swished an elbow jumper to make it a four-point game. Meno finished with 14 points.
When Meno threw a hit-ahead pass that led to a Kozak fastbreak layup with 1:14 left, Sidney trailed, 55-53.
A free throw by Winchester with 1:03 to go made it a three-point game. Sidney had a chance to draw even closer, but the Warriors turned the ball over their next possession.
Komenda hit 1 of 2 free throws to make it 57-53 with 43 seconds left.
Kozak answered with a pair of free throws 12 seconds later to make it 57-55.
It appeared Sidney had a golden chance when Winchester missed a pair of free throws with 20 seconds left. McKee and Unatego’s Jared Jones went for the rebound on the second miss. The ball went out of bounds off of McKee, giving the ball back to Unatego. Sidney then fouled Winchester, who hit both free throws to all but seal the victory.
“Rebounding is still an issue for us,” said Sidney coach Mike Brazee, whose team will play at Greene in the MAC consolation game early next week. “It’s been our Achilles’ heel all year long. It was a (six)-point game and (Johnathan) Forte missed a three. Komenda flashes and gets a putback (with five minutes left). Then we’re only down two and we missed the rebound on the free throw and they get the ball back. Our weakness all year has been rebounding.”
McKee scored nine of his 10 points in the second half for the Warriors, who received 12 points from Kozak in the fourth quarter.
Unatego, which pulled away late to beat Sidney, 51-41, during the regular season, will try to avenge its lone MAC loss when it faces UV in the MAC final. The Storm earned a 63-56 win over the Spartans on Jan. 31.
“We’re going to try for the three-peat,” Winchester said.
Unatego 62, Sidney 60
MAC 1-4 SEMIFINAL
4-SIDNEY (7-9): Jordan Constable 1 0-0 2, Nick Meno 6 0-0 14, Brandon Bessett 2 1-1 5, Pat Vibbard 1 2-2 5, Justin Barnes 1 0-0 2, Wyatt McKee 4 2-4 10, Bill Kozak 6 6-6 20, Trey Larson 1 0-0 2. TOTALS: 22 11-13 60.
1-UNATEGO (11-6): Kellen Komenda 8 3-4 23, Joel VanAlstine 0 0-0 0, Corbin Henry 0 0-0 0, Tanner Winchester 7 11-15 26, Braedon Beadle 0 0-0 0, Johnathan Forte 1 3-4 5, Erik Hartshorn 0 0-0 0, Shane Bucci 1 0-4 2, Jared Jones 2 0-0 6. TOTALS: 19 17-27 62.
Sidney 7 11 15 27 – 60
Unatego 13 15 15 19 – 62
Three-point field goals: S 5 (Meno 2, Vibbard, Kozak 2); U 7 (Komenda 4, Winchester, Jones 2).
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.