By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — VESTAL — From start to finish Sunday, Oneonta High junior Mariah Ruff put on a show at Binghamton University’s Events Center.
One big shot in overtime by teammate Minnie Webster fell into the show-stopper category, though.
Webster’s three-pointer with 4.1 seconds left in overtime — off a pass from Ruff — lifted the Yellowjackets to a thrilling, 57-56 victory over Horseheads in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference girls basketball championship game.
“I had a feeling,” Webster said of the final shot winding up in her hands. “(Ruff) looked like she had people all over her and I just knew it was going to kick to me and I knew I had to shoot it.”
The senior’s shot from the left wing encountered ever-so-slight contact with iron as it passed through the rim. Following a last-second, half-court heave by Horseheads’ Ellie Leszyk that fell way short of the basket, Webster’s teammates lifted her onto their shoulders and carried her off the court.
Though Webster’s shot placed an exclamation point at the end of a wildly entertaining title game, Ruff’s game-long excellence shouldn’t be forgotten any time soon by the many fans who witnessed it.
From those two NBA-range three-pointers she swished early in the second quarter, to the numerous dribble-draw-and-dish assists — three of the no-look variety — to those powerful legs that helped her spring for deflections and rebounds, Ruff possibly played her best game in an OHS uniform.
The final count showed 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists — numbers that may have necessitated Ruff’s trip to the office of Binghamton University women’s basketball coach Nicole Scholl about 10 minutes after the game.
“I thought she did a great job of managing the tempo of the game, her shot selection was great and she obviously got some people open,” OHS coach Matt Miller said of Ruff. “I thought she played unbelievably well. There was just an intensity and energy about her. She’s a gamer. The bigger the stage, the harder she plays and you could see that tonight.”
It marked OHS’ second STAC title and its first since a 42-34 win over Seton Catholic Central in 2009.
It also marked the Yellowjackets’ third straight appearance in the final — the previous two ending with losses to Binghamton
High. During that span, OHS has faced Horseheads each year — the first two coming in STAC semifinals.
Two years ago at OHS, the Yellowjackets beat the Blue Raiders, 49-47, in overtime. Last year, OHS bunched eight points into game’s final minute to beat host HH, 61-55, as Ruff and Webster scored 19 and 14 points, respectively.
“We both have the same group of kids,” Miller said. “We both had kids playing as freshmen and sophomores and they’ve kind of grown up together, so it doesn’t surprise me, but I’m certainly glad to be on the three-win side of that.”
Following a see-saw first half that ended with OHS holding a 25-23 lead, the Yellowjackets started the second half with 5-foot-10 senior Kelsey Baker (10 rebounds) on the bench with three fouls. Things got worse when 6-2 senior center Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering was whistled for her third foul with 5:16 left in the third quarter.
The Blue Raiders (15-3), the top seed for the upcoming Section Four Class AA Tournament, had size everywhere, including 5-11 guards Tess Wicks and Marlea Nolan, 6-0 forward Jen Chalk and 6-1 center Amanda Schiefen.
Still, OHS (17-1) raced to an eight-point lead early in the third quarter. After Wicks made a putback to tie the score at 25, Oneonta answered with an 8-0 run that took less than a minute.
Webster hit a three from the right wing off a pass from Ruff and then swished one from the opposite baseline about 15 seconds later. Next came a steal that led to a fastbreak layup by Ruff, and the Yellowjackets had a 33-25 lead.
The margin was still eight when Ruff came up with yet another did-she-really-just-do-that? special. With the shot clock running down and two defenders on her, Ruff crossed over from left to right before hitting a three-pointer from the key. It made the score, 42-34.
That’s about the time Schiefen — Horseheads’ silky-smooth left-hander — started to assert herself.
She cut the Blue Raiders’ deficit to six on a shot in the lane to make it a six-point spread heading into the fourth quarter.
Schiefen, a sophomore who figures to be one of Section Four’s best over the next couple of seasons, scored nine of her team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter. Almost all of it came off of back-to-the-basket post moves, and some of her makes were over the hands of Vanderlaan-Meyering.
Webster made a key defensive play with two minutes left, stealing a pass from the top of Oneonta’s zone before finding Ruff for a transition layup that gave OHS a 52-48 lead.
But Schiefen scored inside 12 seconds later.
It was 52-50 when Yellowjackets senior Hayley Dower went to the line for a 1-and-1 with 8.4 seconds left. Dower missed the front end, but OHS still had two fouls to give.
After Dower and Ruff committed fouls, Horseheads inbounded in front of its bench with 2.5 seconds remaining. Schiefen got excellent position along the left block, received the inbounds pass and hit a 6-footer along the baseline with 0.3 seconds left to force overtime.
“It was certainly exciting, but to be honest, if every game was like this I don’t think I could coach long term,” Miller said. “I had butterflies in overtime. I felt like I was going to throw up; my head was pounding. I don’t know if I could handle it every single game if they were all like that.”
Twenty-four seconds into overtime, Horseheads took its first lead since the first quarter when Erin Strollo made a fastbreak layup. She was fouled by Dower but missed the free throw.
Dower, who finished with seven points, seven assists and six steals, then tied it at 54 on two free throws with 2:16 to go.
Neither side scored until Schiefen rebounded a miss by Leszyk and made the putback with 22 seconds to play.
Ruff brought the ball to the right side of the court on Oneonta’s final possession. With Strollo playing tight defense, Ruff penetrated into the left side of the lane, where two more Blue Raiders blocked her path.
“You don’t want their best to beat you, so we went out and doubled her and they hit the open jumper,” Horseheads coach Andrew Scott said.
Ruff then passed sideways with her left hand to an open Webster.
“I go to the Boys and Girls Club every day,” Webster said of how she hones her shooting stroke. “I shoot around and I just work my butt off.”
Added Miller: “To want to take that shot and want to hit that shot at the end just shows how much she’s grown up as a player and as a young lady.”
The Yellowjackets, the top seed in the Section Four Class B Tournament, will play STAC rival Chenango Valley (8-8) or Interscholastic Athletic Conference Large School champion Waverly (18-0) at 7 p.m. Friday in a sectional semifinal. Waverly is seeded fourth, one spot ahead of CV.
“It’s huge,” Ruff said of the winning the STAC championship. “Three years in a row, we finally won one. But sectionals are still going to be tough. We can celebrate tonight and tomorrow, and then we’re going to get right back to work and get ready for Friday.”
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.