Falcons making first trip to semifinals since 2005
By David Yarger
It’s been 14 years since the Niagara-Wheatfield Falcons boys basketball team has reached Buffalo State to play in the Section VI semifinals.
On Saturday, the team punched its ticket to return to the venue, as the No. 6 Falcons defeated No. 3 North Tonawanda, 58-49, in the Class A1 quarterfinals.
In front of a stellar audience at NTHS, the Falcons overcame an 11-point deficit at halftime to come back and clinch the team’s first Buff State berth since 2005.
At the start, things were not looking bright for N-W. After a Zack Stanley 3-point to give the Falcons a 3-2 lead, the Lumberjacks closed the quarter on a 12-2 run.
Offense was tough to come by for both squads, and after the first half, NT led, 28-17.
The Falcons were getting open looks, but shots just would not fall for the team.
That changed in the second half.
To start the half, Davon Ware, who went scoreless in the first half, nailed his first 3-pointer. The trey began an 11-0 N-W run to tie things up at 28.
With the score tied at 32, NT’s Dante Moultrie scored 5 consecutive points to give the Jacks the lead back.
N-W had an answer, though, as Ben “Rico” Salomon drilled a 3-ball to tie it back up.
On the ensuing possession, Ware found senior Raejaun Smith under the hoop for a layup while drawing a foul. After Smith capitalized at the free throw line, the Falcons were up, 38-35 – a lead the Falcons wouldn’t let go of the rest of the game.
After a Roman Wright jumper to start the final quarter, Andy DeVantier swished home a 3-pointer to give N-W a six-point lead.
With the score 45-41, both teams began to go crazy with the 3-ball.
Freshman TJ Robinson drilled a trey, then on the other end, Noah Fox-Stoddard added a 3-pointer of his own.
On N-W’s ensuing possession, Ware hit his second trey, then Smith drilled a corner 3-ball to give the Falcons a 10-point 54-44 lead.
Ware and Smith closed things out with two free throws apiece and, as the final buzzer sounded, the Falcons stormed the court in celebration of its 58-49 upset victory.
For the Falcons, Smith led the way with 17 points, while Robinson and Ware added 14 and 10, respectively. Additionally, Wright chipped in 6, while Salomon netted 5.
For NT, Fox-Stoddard had a team-high 15, while Moultrie and James Holler added 10 and 8, respectively.
The win for N-W coach Erik O’Bryan is bittersweet, as his last Buff State appearance came as a coach with NT in 2009. He was at a loss of words following the victory and said, after starting the season 3-6, it’s impressive to see how far the team has come.
“We’re 10-3 in the last 13 games. They refuse to lose. We were down 28-17; high school kids nowadays they crumble. We went into that locker room (at halftime) and not one kid had their head down, not one kid was yelling. We’ve been there before, and our motto is ‘It’s only a big game if you win it,’ and we’ve been through a bunch of them lately,” O’Bryan said. “We all knew, at the end of the day, we needed defensive stops to get the game going a little quicker for us, because that’s how we like to play. Fortunately enough, we can finally say we won a game on the defensive end tonight – we haven’t been able to say that all year.”
After enduring a tough first half where shots refused to go down, the Falcons were able to keep composure and continue to find open looks and, in the second half, those shots fell.
“I think it comes from seniors. I think Roman does a great job; Zack, Cam (Miller). … I just think it’s a belief in each other, I really do. They genuinely like each other … and they enjoy each other’s company and they don’t want it to end. So, we’re excited,” O’Bryan said.
He added that the team’s chemistry is off the charts and they’re able to enjoy playing together as a team.
After saying the win was his proudest moment as N-W’s coach, O’Bryan added, “This is for all our teams. … It’s been 14 years. We’ve always had teams that bust and try so hard and play to the hardest they could. … This team did no different, we’re just able to put the ball in the basket a little bit more. So, this is for all of them, also.”
Up next for the Falcons is the Williamsville East Flames in the Class A1 semifinals. The two teams faced off in mid-January, with the Falcons coming out victorious, 67-48.
N-W’s looks to make its first finals appearance since the 1972-73 season (defeated Emerson) at 7:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, at Buffalo State College.
Coach Erik O'Bryan looks at his bench with excitement as the team closes out a 58-49 victory over North Tonawanda
Some of these N-W faithful made life difficult for NT on Saturday
The Falcons were just a little excited in the locker room following its upset victory
Raejaun Smith shoots a free throw in the late stage of Saturday's game. Smith had a game-high 17 points.
Freshman TJ Robinson directs traffic on the court during Saturday's victory
Zack Stanley shoots a free throw late versus North Tonawanda