By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — BINGHAMTON — It’s odd when a team almost apologizes for winning a sectional championship, especially when it’s the sixth straight such title — a streak that is two longer than any other in Section Four girls basketball history.
But there stood Oneonta High standout Mariah Ruff and senior teammate Kelsey Baker on Saturday at the Broome County Arena talking about a Yellowjackets offense that didn’t seem worthy of the team’s 19-1 record.
But after an evening of uncertain ballhandling, ill-advised passes, and poor shooting from the field and the free throw line, one aspect that has been the cornerstone of the Yellowjackets’ success these past half-dozen seasons held firm.
What top-seeded Oneonta’s 41-33 victory over No. 2 Seton Catholic Central in the Section Four Class B final lacked in beauty it made up for in effort, especially at the defensive end.
“I think our defense kind of saved us because offensively, Seton kind of adjusted to the way we play,” said Baker, a 5-10 forward who scored nine of Oneonta’s first 13 points.
It’s not the first time OHS has leaned heavily on point prevention during this streak. In fact, none of the Yellowjackets’ opponents in their six sectional finals scored more than 40 points. Four of them failed to crack the 33-point barrier and two were held to 27 points.
Remember, these aren’t run-of-the-mill, regular-season opponents. These are the best the section has to offer and all struggled to score against the Yellowjackets.
“We all knew we were struggling on the offensive end,” said Ruff, who scored a game-high 14 points but admittedly, played one of her poorest games in an OHS uniform. “We were missing shots we normally make, so we played hard on defense.”
It seems unlikely, however, that if OHS undergoes offensive hardships similar to what it experienced Saturday, that its season will last much longer. The Yellowjackets will face Section Three champion Utica Notre Dame at 4 p.m. Saturday in a Class B state quarterfinal at Onondaga Community College.
The Jugglers (17-5) advanced with a 54-45 overtime victory Thursday against South Jefferson (19-1), which ended OHS’ season a year ago with a 47-39 win in a state quarterfinal.
Early Saturday, the Yellowjackets looked like a squad that hadn’t played since a 60-30 dismantling of previously unbeaten Waverly eight days ago.
They missed their first six shots and when Ruff made a wild close-out as Christy O’Neil attempted a three-pointer, Oneonta’s point guard went to the bench with two fouls and O’Neil stepped to the free throw line for three shots.
O’Neil went 2-for-3 from the line to give the Saints — a 56-29 loser to OHS during the season — a 4-0 lead with 4 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first quarter.
Ruff wouldn’t return until 7:13 remained in the second quarter. Seemingly, it presented a grand opportunity for the Saints to put gain some separation on the Jackets.
Instead, OHS went on a 7-1 run.
“Anytime you can have your best player on the bench for 4-5 minutes and not lose ground, that’s huge,” said OHS coach Matt Miller, who’s steered the Yellowjackets to sectional titles in each of his three seasons.
Baker hit a free throw to give OHS its first point with 2:57 left in the first quarter. When Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering scored inside off a pass from Maria DiMartin, the Yellowjackets trailed, 5-3. Baker then hit a nifty scoop in the lane before hitting a pair of free throws as OHS took a 7-5 lead with 1:11 left in the first quarter.
“Without Mariah, we’re obviously not as good of a team,” said Baker, who finished with 11 points. “But we step up when she’s not in there. We fill her spot when she’s not in there.”
Ruff’s spotty play continued when she re-entered.
Twice in the first half, Emily Gibson stole the ball from Ruff and Jamie Farrell did it once. Ruff also forced some passes to the wing that nearly resulted in turnovers and threw up a couple of airballs on three-point attempts.
“I wasn’t doing a good job controlling the ball,” said Ruff, coming off of excellent games Horseheads (21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a 57-56 overtime victory in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference final) and Waverly (28 points, eight steals, six rebounds and four assists). “It was my fault. I should have controlled the ball better. I couldn’t get the ball upcourt and I couldn’t get us into our offense.”
But after O’Neil hit a three-pointer to give SCC a 14-9 lead with 5 ½ minutes left in the first half, the Yellowjackets went on a 19-3 run that bridged the second and third quarters.
OHS closed the half on an 11-0 spurt.
Ruff’s first points came on a 12-foot, pull-up in the lane 4:15 before halftime. She was fouled on the shot but missed the free throw. Baker rebounded the miss and hit the putback as OHS closed to 14-13.
Minnie Webster tied it at 14 on a free throw with 3:26 left in the second quarter and Vanderlaan-Meyering gave the Yellowjackets the lead for keeps on a three-point play. OHS’ 6-foot-2 center received a pass from Ruff along the baseline and hit a difficult reverse layup as she was fouled. Her free throw made it 17-14 with 1:48 to go in the quarter.
Vanderlaan-Meyering finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and eight blocks. She was a big reason Saints center Angelica Hauer finished with eight points. Hauer will play for Division I Stony Brook next season, but the 6-3 center struggled to get touches against OHS’ packed 1-3-1 zone.
“I can’t stress enough how important she is to us on the defensive end,” Miller said of Vanderlaan-Meyering.
Ruff’s three-pointer from the right wing 8 seconds before halftime gave the Jackets a 20-14 lead.
“What (Miller) said at halftime was as badly as we played, we’re still up six,” Baker said. “That was a positive and we knew we could only improve from that.”
O’Neil, who finished with a team-high 13 points, hit a three-pointer from right of the key to cut SCC’s deficit to 21-17 with six minutes left in the third quarter.
OHS answered with seven straight points. The run included a wing jumper by Baker, a fastbreak layup by Webster and a pull-up jumper in transition by Ruff. Ruff’s basket made it 28-17 with 4:14 left in the quarter. The Yellowjackets would make one field goal the rest of the way.
What ensued was a cover-your-eyes stretch of play by both squads that offered little in the way of artistic basketball. The teams combined to make three shots from the floor in the fourth quarter, which also included sub-standard free throw shooting — mostly by OHS. The Yellowjackets finished 18-for-36 from the line and 9-for-20 in the fourth quarter.
The Saints (14-5) drew to 32-28 on a pair of free throws by Molly Martin with 3:04 to play.
But Baker hit two free throws with two minutes left and Hayley Dower went 2-for-2 from the line after O’Neil incurred a technical foul for slamming the basketball with 1:52 to go.
Ruff then hit 1 of 2 from the line after Dower’s free throws to make it 37-28 and the Saints never drew closer than six thereafter.
On extending the Yellowjackets’ streak to six straight sectional titles, Ruff said: “Every time (we win one) it’s great. It doesn’t feel any different. We don’t want to be the team that breaks the streak.”
Added Miller: “It’s tough to keep this in perspective when you know you didn’t play great, but it’s an incredible accomplishment by our kids. That’s six consecutive sectional championships for our kids and our seniors have been a part of four.
“Going back six years, all of those kids put in the time,” he continued. “They’ve been going 12 months out of the year since seventh grade. Most kids improve from November to March, but I feel our kids have separated themselves in the offseason.”
Oneonta 41, Seton CC 33
SECTION FOUR CLASS B
Broome County Arena
2-SETON CATHOLIC CENTRAL (14-5): Molly Martin 0 2-4 2, Lauren Miller 4 1-2 10, Christy O’Neil 3 5-7 13, Angelica Hauer 3 2-8 8, Jamie Farrell 0 0-0 0, Emily Gibson 0 0-0 0, Taylor Stevens 0 0-0 0, Elena Tiderencel 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 10 10-23 33.
1-ONEONTA (19-1): Hayley Dower 0 5-8 5, Minnie Webster 1 1-4 3, Kelsey Baker 3 5-6 11, Mariah Ruff 4 5-13 14, Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering 3 2-5 8, Maria DiMartin 0 0-0 0, Sierra Sangetti-Daniels 0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 11 18-36 41.
Seton Catholic Central 7 7 7 12 — 33
Oneonta 7 13 10 11 — 41
Three-point field goals: S 3 (O’Neil 2, Miller); O 1 (Ruff).
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.