By Dean Russin
The Daily Star
---- — OTEGO – Casey Manzanero had nothing to lose at the foul line with 3 seconds left Tuesday night.
That’s because 18 seconds earlier, she made the free throws that mattered most.
“I guess I need to have that little, ‘OK you need to make this or you have a chance of losing,’ “ said senior swingplayer Manzanero, who hit both ends of a 1-and-1 opportunity at the foul line with 21 seconds left to cap the scoring in Unatego’s 48-44 Section Four Class C girls basketball semifinal win over Newfield.
“I try not to think about it really,” continued Manzanero, who clanged her last two free throw attempts off the rim with 3 seconds to go and the Spartans holding a four-point lead. “I try not to think about it because I really don’t like the pressure – even though I missed those last two with no pressure. The best thing to do is just think about practice and just shoot your foul shots.”
Newfield’s Megan Pakkala rebounded Manzanero’s second miss but could only advance the ball to halfcourt before the buzzer sounded as fourth-seeded Unatego (17-4) advanced to a Section Four championship game for the first time since 1985.
“It was that long ago,” said Spartans coach Greg Bonczkowski, whose team will play sixth-seeded Midstate Athletic Conference rival Harpursville or No. 2 seed Elmira Notre Dame of the Interscholastic Athletic Conference for the sectional title at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Broome County Arena in Binghamton. Harpursville was scheduled to visit END on Tuesday, but poor weather pushed their semifinal back to today.
“I’ve been coach here for nine years and this round is as far as we’ve got,” Bonczkowski continued. “We’ve had a good season, but we want to compete and give our best effort. For them to have this opportunity, I’m very happy for them.”
The eighth-seeded Trojans (14-6), who upset No. 1 seed Lansing in the quarterfinal round, jumped to a 5-0 lead inside the first minute-and-a-half. That spurt marked Newfield’s biggest cushion, though, as Unatego scored the next six points to set up a back-and-forth battle until the final minute.
“I think we gave them a really hard game,” said Newfield coach Gary Emerson, who had five players contribute at least six points, including a team-best 12 from senior forward Erica Carney. “We gave them all they could handle.”
So, too, did the Spartans, who received double-doubles from Manzanero and 6-foot-3 junior center Marissa Woodard, 10 rebounds from senior forward Robin Foster, and eight points from sophomore reserve forward Cassidy Newman.
Woodard was particularly effective in the opening quarter, when she had 10 points and six rebounds to help the Spartans to a 14-11 lead.
“I came into tonight thinking this might be the last home game with our seniors,” said Woodard, whose length and soft touch resulted in 13 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. “I feel like I do a lot better when the girls are not nearly as tall as me. Unless they’re really, really athletic, I feel like I just do really good when people are shorter than me. I’m a lot more confident.”
Said Bonczkowski: “Marissa has something you can’t teach; she has some size. She’s a good basketball player, she gets in there and is capable of getting rebounds and finishing. We’ve been working on finishing in practice and keeping the ball high and tonight, she got opportunities and made them count. You have to applaud her for that.”
Sarah Mannina’s only basket - a three-pointer from the right diagonal 15 seconds into the second period - gave Unatego its largest lead at 17-11. Newfield fought back to reclaim the edge on a three-point play by Lindsey Wood, who made it 22-21 with 2:50 left in the first half, but the Spartans went into the break with a 26-24 advantage thanks to three free throws from Newman and a putback by Foster at the buzzer.
Manzanero came out hard in the third quarter, scoring three straight baskets in less than two minutes to keep Unatego ahead.
“This was a close game and we needed to get it going,” said Manzanero, who also had four rebounds, two steals and drew a charge in the third period, following a four-point first half. “If at least someone on the team keeps going and shows that we’re going to be there and play, then the rest of the people pick up on the enthusiasm. I think that’s what happened and it worked.”
Manzanero’s mini-run in the third turned a 30-28 deficit into a 34-30 lead for Unatego, which stayed ahead by five points or less the rest of the game.
Manzanero came through at the foul line twice in the last 2:03. She first hit both ends of a 1-and-1 opportunity to give the Spartans a 46-41 lead, then did the same with 21 seconds to go for the final margin.
There was no question, though, that this was a true team victory for the Spartans.
“That’s what sectionals is,” said Manzanero, who finished with a game-high 14 points and 10 rebounds. “Everyone has to contribute. If you have a team with one great player, it’s really hard to win sectionals. I think I’ve had under 10 points every (sectional) game and I’m fine with that because we’re winning. The only thing that matters is we have one more point than the other team.”