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11-9 record Falcons best finish in 10+ years
By David Yarger
On Dec. 21, the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons boys basketball team sat with a record of 2-5. Since then, the Falcons proceeded to go 9-4 and finish with an 11-9 record – the program’s best, according to coach Erik O’Bryan, in around 14 years.
N-W put the final touches on the regular season with a 75-54 victory over Kenmore East in Niagara Frontier League crossover play.
The team received a huge boost from senior Raejaun Smith, who was effective on the glass and around the hoop all evening.
Smith scored 11 of the team’s 18 first quarter points, while senior guard Davon Ware added 7 in the frame. Smith’s effectiveness grabbing rebounds showed out to end the first, as the Niagara Catholic transfer grabbed two offensive boards before netting his final bucket of the quarter.
Meanwhile, for the Bulldogs, Amari Gordon and Isaiah Walker contributed 6 and 4 points, respectively, to keep East close at the end of the quarter, 18-14.
Smith continued his torrid pace of points in the second quarter. After a Zack Stanley 3-pointer, Smith netted 8 of the Falcons’ next 10 points, which gave N-W a 30-20 lead. After a bucket from Ware and four straight points from freshman TJ Robinson, Smith finished the quarter with two free throws – his 18th and 19th points of the night – to give N-W a 39-27 lead at the half.
The Falcons came out on a 7-0 run in the third quarter, which was ignited by a Ware 3-ball. East ended the quarter, though, on an 11-4 run to make it 50-38 after three frames.
A layup from Walker started the final quarter to cut the N-W lead to 10, but it’s as close as the Bulldogs would get.
After a Roman Wright bucket, Robinson extended the Falcons’ lead to 18 with his lone 3-pointer of the game.
A Ben Salomon trey made it a 22-point game, which O’Bryan then turned the final two minutes over to his reserves.
Ryan Mellerski’s successful layup while getting fouled capped the Falcons scoring on the night, and N-W finished it season in grand fashion.
Smith added 6 more points in the frame to finish with 29 points, as well as 17 rebounds. Additionally, Ware finished with 17 points, while Robinson added 11 and Wright had 6 points and five rebounds. Stanley and Salomon each had 5 points.
Of Smith’s double-double performance, O’Bryan said the team is difficult to beat when he’s playing efficiently like he did, Wednesday night.
“Rae is our most efficient player. When it comes down to a plus/minus; Rae is the most efficient player, by far, and it’s because of what he does on the backboard,” O’Bryan said. “There was a stretch there – these last 11 games; 8-3 – he was averaging 15 to 17 rebounds a game.”
O’Bryan added that the Falcons field a smaller lineup, but it helps pick up the pace of play, and when “Rae comes to play, we’re pretty good.”
For O’Bryan, he’s endured his fair share of ups and downs coaching the N-W program, but to finish the regular season with 11 wins, he was “ecstatic.” He also pointed back to a point earlier in the season where the team was 3-6.
“At 3-6, to get to 11-9 … we talked that we don’t go back, we move forward, and your future is what you want it to be,” he said.
O’Bryan pointed out that the three losses were to Niagara Falls, which the Falcons trailed by 8 points with two minutes left against the sixth-ranked team in Class AA of New York; Lockport, who finished its season 14-6; and North Tonawanda, who the Falcons could possibly see again in the Class A1 Sectional Playoffs.
“Me personally, I think NT is the best team in our A1 bracket,” O’Bryan spoke of the Lumberjacks.
The Falcons lost the first matchup versus the Jacks 50-37 after the team went cold in the second half, and in the team’s last matchup, the Falcons trailed by three points with less than two minutes left, but lost 68-60.
O’Bryan added the Class A1 bracket is very competitive and the best record will likely be 12-8, which the Falcons are one game behind that mark.
“There’s not one team where you look at the A1 and go, ‘Oh, man. They’re in our bracket.’ There’s not one,” O’Bryan said. “If we beat NT, we’d be fighting for a two or three seed tonight.”
The season-ending win gives the Falcons a good vibe heading into the playoffs and O’Bryan said the team is expected to be the No. 6 or 7 seed, which guarantees them a home playoff game next week. O’Bryan had a message for the N-W faithful in the crowd, too, knowing there will be a postseason affair in the Falcons Den.
“Come out and support, man. We are much better with energy. Our fans are great; they’ve been great this year. I love it,” O’Bryan said. “It started with very slim pickings at the beginning of the year, and we didn’t deserve fans. Now, they’ve been buying in. We score points and they’re coming and I think they enjoy us – they enjoy the type of basketball we play. … I know it’s the break, but I plea to them: Come in masses. Come in full force; bring it all.”
The Falcons first playoff game according to O’Bryan will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, with opponent to be determined.