By Rob Centorani
The Daily Star
---- — ONEONTA _ ‘Twas the smallest of Oneonta High’s starters who made the biggest impact Wednesday night.Senior guard Hayley Dower hit five three-pointers and scored a game-high 18 points to lead the Yellowjackets to a 50-34 Southern Tier Athletic Conference semifinal victory over Maine-Endwell.
On a night Spartans shooters misfired on all 20 of their three-point attempts, Dower couldn’t seem to miss from long range before a large turnout at Drago Gymnasium.
“Hayley came up huge,” said backcourt mate Mariah Ruff, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists. “She was hitting shots all over. She was handling the ball, handling pressure and she was automatic. You passed her the ball and you knew it was going in.”
The East Division champion Yellowjackets (16-1) will now move on to their third straight STAC final. They’ll oppose West Division winner Horseheads at noon Sunday at Binghamton University’s Events Center. The Blue Raiders defeated Owego, 62-41, in Wednesday’s other semifinal.
“Horseheads starts five kid and they’re all getting college looks,” OHS coach Matt Miller said. “They’re all 5-foot-11 athletes. They’re long and they can shoot.”
The past two seasons, OHS has earned narrow wins over Horseheads to advance to the STAC final. Both times, the Yellowjackets went on to lose to Binghamton _ by 33 points in 2011 and by one point last season.
“We’ve been there two years in a row and we haven’t won one yet, so we’re looking forward to it,” Ruff said of winning the program’s first STAC title since a 42-34 win over Seton Catholic Central in 2009.
Dower’s biggest contribution came in the game’s opening 10 minutes. If not for her sharp-shooting, the Yellowjackets could have faced an 18-2 deficit midway through the second quarter.
The 5-foot-4 Dower made four threes early on in scoring 12 of Oneonta’s first 14 points.
It started with a baseline three off a pass from Ruff two minutes into play to give OHS a 3-0 lead.
Metro Division champion M-E (13-4) then went on an 11-2 run. The up-tempo Spartans appeared on the verge of overwhelming OHS, scoring easy baskets in transition during the spurt.
When Danielle Dean turned a steal into a layup, M-E led, 9-5, with 3:13 left in the first quarter. Leading scorer Julie Yacovoni then scored in the lane off an inbound play to extend the Spartans to lead to 11-5.
“We were playing at a speed they wanted us to play at,” Miller said of the frenetic pace in the first quarter. “We’re turning the ball over, playing too fast, kicking it off our feet and we just said we had to change gears. If there wasn’t something in transition, let’s slow it down.”
Then Dower started to find the range. She hit two three-pointers from left of the key over the final 1:30 of the first period. With two minutes gone in the second period, she again hit from left of the key to give OHS a 14-13 lead.
All of her threes came off passes from Ruff. Though the OHS standout couldn’t get her own shots to fall _ Ruff missed her first 11 shots from the floor _ her penetration to the left side of M-E’s man-to-man forced Dower’s defender to help.
That led to wide-open looks for Dower on kick-outs.
“When Mar goes, people usually go down with her, so I look to find the open spot,” said Dower, adding she’d never hit five threes in an OHS uniform before Wednesday. “Tonight was a great atmosphere. I was really into it and (the shots) were just falling.”
M-E took a 17-14 lead on a wing jumper in transition by Lauren DiFulvio with 5:25 left in the second quarter. A free throw by Yacovoni made it a four-point spread with 4:21 to go in the half.
OHS then answered with a 22-4 run that bridged the second and third quarters.
The spurt started with Ruff on the bench. After missing her first 11 shots, Miller gave Ruff a break with 5:06 left in the half and kept her on the bench until 2:44 remained in the quarter.
In the interim, Kelsey Baker hit a baseline runner and Dower scored in transition 45 seconds apart. The latter tied the score at 18 3:10 before halftime.
Ruff then arguably hit the two biggest shots of the night 10 seconds apart. First, she hit a three from the right baseline with 50 seconds left in the half to give OHS the lead for keeps at 21-18. Then, she scored in transition 10 seconds later.
Oh, and both baskets came off assists from Dower.
“I think that five-point run at the end of the second quarter really hurt us,” M-E coach Sonny Spera said. “It was 18-18 and we had held Ruff scoreless. That was tough.”
M-E ended a nine-minute drought without a field when Becca Dewing hit a jumper with 4:24 to go in the third quarter. It made the score, 27-22.
Nine straight Oneonta points followed to all but settle things.
Ruff hit a pair of free throws to start the spurt.
Dower then made a four-point play. She swished a three from the left wing and was fouled by Brianna Ciganek. Her free throw made it 33-22.
“When she gets it going she’s as good as anyone in our program (from three-point range),” Miller said. “That helps because it stretches the defense and they have to come out on her. Hayley just played unbelievably.”
Ruff scored in the lane with 1:30 left in the quarter and Maria DiMartin capped the run with a free throw 12 seconds later to make it 36-22.
M-E never drew closer than 12 points thereafter.
“That’s 21 points,” Spera said of the number of points OHS outscored his team from three-point range. “That’s a big difference. We just weren’t making shots and maybe we pressed a little bit.
“Give them credit,” he continued. “They defend well. They push you out of your spots and they take away passes.”
Natalie Vanderlaan-Meyering contributed six points and eight rebounds for OHS, which received seven rebounds from Baker.
The Yellowjackets earned the top seed for the Section Four Class B tournament. They’ll host Waverly or Chenango Valley a week from Friday _ their first step in attempting to win a sixth consecutive sectional title.
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.