UTICA – In a game featuring drastic momentum swings, it was Rome Free Academy which landed the decisive blow during Wednesday’s Tri Valley League battle at Notre Dame.
Trailing 51-48 with 2:17 remaining in the third quarter, the Black Knights went on a lightning-quick 19-0 run in three minutes and 36 seconds to take a 67-51 advantage, and then held off another furious comeback by Notre Dame for an 86-78 victory.
It was a huge victory for RFA (4-0, 8-2), which not only extended its win streak to eight games, but also snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Jugglers and in the process vaulted into sole possession of first place atop the Tri Valley League’s Colonial Division.
“We beat them in the first TVL game in 2011 and haven’t won against them since,” RFA head coach Nick Medicis said. “So, it was a big win for us.”
Dante Cummings led the Black Knights with 20 points, including three 3-pointers to help the Black Knights build a big 23-7 advantage after the first quarter. Center Gavin Mosher controlled the paint with 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.
Guards Ethan Powell (16 points and four assists, and T.J. Behlin (14 points, seven rebounds and six assists) overcame tough first halves to take over the game at different stages of the second half.
“With Notre Dame it’s always a back-and-forth battle,” Powell said. “We knew when they go on a runs that we’re going to answer. In the first half I was rushing it because I had butterflies in my stomach knowing we haven’t beaten them in a long time. In the second half I stopped forcing things and let my teammates do the work and let the game come to me.”
Treijen Garrett led the Jugglers with 20 points, while Jaylen Warmack (18 points) and Patrick Espinosa (17 points) did their best to keep the Jugglers in the game.
The Jugglers (2-1, 5-2) fell behind early as the Black Knights hit five 3-pointers in the first quarter to gain a 16-point advantage.
With not much working on either end of the floor, Notre Dame head coach Ryan Goux went to his bench late in the first quarter and the move paid off as the trio of Douglas Smallwood, Sam Bianco, and most notably Espinosa, made a huge impact in the second quarter.
“We missed a lot of easy baskets today,” Ryan Goux said. “(RFA) played hard and we got down early. Our bench really stepped up for us and did a great job. I couldn’t be prouder of them for keeping us in the game.”
In the second quarter alone, Espinosa surpassed his career high, by pouring in 17 points, including three 3-pointers as the Jugglers steadily clawed into RFA’s lead. With 37 seconds remaining in the quarter, Espinosa hit his third 3-pointer to knot the game at 36 heading into halftime.
“It felt pretty good,” Espinosa said. “I was just taking open shots and trying to help my team get back into the game.”
With senior stars Dante Griffin and Warmack failing to record a field goal in the first half, the Jugglers had to feel great about being tied at the break.
In the third quarter, the Jugglers quickly took their first lead of the game as Garrett hit a lefty floater. Powell responded with a baseline 3-pointer and the teams traded baskets during the opening five minutes of the third quarter.
Back-to-back buckets by Warmack, who scored 11 of his 18 in the quarter, gave the Jugglers a brief three-point lead before Behlin took over to start RFA’s decisive run.
The senior guard sat out the majority of the first half due to foul trouble, but came up huge when his team needed him most. Behlin scored eight consecutive points, culminating in a tough drive to the hoop to give RFA a 56-51 lead.
“I like playing the whole game, so I really hated sitting,” Behlin said. “It was tough watching them make a run, so I felt I had to take the game over. Our defense stepped up in the third to give us that big run. Eleven games is a pretty long time. So it feels extra special, since we lost to them both times last year, to be able to come to their floor and get a win. It means a lot to us.”
Medicis has great confidence in Behlin’s ability to come through for his team.
“T.J. got in foul trouble early, so we sat him nearly the entire first half,” Medicis said. “Then he picked up his third early in the third quarter, but he’s so smart and was able to play the rest of the game without picking up another. He always has the ball in his hands in big moments and really makes things happen for us.”
The Black Knights’ freight train continued in the final minute of the third as Mosher took a steal at halfcourt and charged in for a two-handed power jam to push the lead to seven. Seconds later, Cummings raced in for another layin to give RFA a 60-51 lead after three quarters.
The run didn’t stop there as Cummings scored the opening seven points of the fourth quarter to stake his team to a 67-51 lead with 6:41 remaining.
Cummings shows a lot of expression on the court and has the mindset that shooters must carry. A few of his shots hit the side of the backboard or caught nothing but air. However, he usually responded with two or three straight baskets.
“Coach says shooters shoot,” Cummings said. “We have the green light as long as it’s a good shot.”
Once again, the Jugglers didn’t wilt and fought to the finish. Griffin (8 points), Warmack (six) and Garrett (10) all had nice fourth quarters to keep their team within striking distance until the final minute.
Griffin, who couldn’t get anything to fall in the first three quarters, hit a 3-pointer to close out a quick 11-1 run for the Jugglers that pulled them to within 70-66 with just under four minutes remaining.
RFA sophomore forward Damien Call, who had a nice game with 11 points and 13 rebounds, made one of the biggest hoop of his young high school career, driving from the left wing and drawing a foul while converting a short floater for a conventional 3-point play.
On RFA’s next possession, Behlin found Mosher under the basket or a layin and the Black Knights led 74-66 with 2:51 left. The Jugglers could only close to within six over the final few minutes as Powell hit a big 3-pointer to cement the victory.
“In the end, we took too many long shots and they got long rebounds that led to easy baskets,” Goux said. “They are a tough team to play, and today I think we just ran out of gas.”
The wild, up-and-down game suits RFA’s style. The Black Knights are comfortable taking some risks because they feel they’ll eventually have more big runs than their opponent.
“We are used to the chaotic style,” Medicis said. “We call it controlled chaos. (Notre Dame) did a nice job in the second quarter slowing us down and forcing turnovers, but Ethan, T.J. and our players hit big shots when we needed them.”
Notre Dame is the defending league champion and has enjoyed incredible success against the Black Knights, but Wednesday, the Jugglers got away from their game.
“I think they did a good job of making us play faster than we wanted and making us play their game,” Warmack said. “But I was proud of how we came back from the 20-point deficit, but RFA did a better job than us executing at the end of the game.”
Rome Free Academy 86, Notre Dame 78
RFA 23 13 24 26—86
ND 7 29 15 27—78
RFA (4-0, 8-2): Dante Cummings 8-0 20; Gavin Mosher 8-1 17; Ethan Powell 5-3 16; T.J. Behlin 5-4 14; Damien Call 4-2 11; Tristan Hunzinger 3-0 6; Jeremiah Bartholomew 1-0 2. Totals: 34-10-86. 3-Pointers: 8 (Cummings 4, Powell 3, Call).
Notre Dame (2-1, 5-2): Treijen Garrett 9-0 20; Jaylen Warmack 7-4 18; Patrick Espinosa 6-2 17; Dante Griffin 3-4 12; Derek Lindsay 1-5 7; Nick Courto 1-0 2; Douglas Smallwood 1-0 2. Totals: 28-15-78. 3-Pointers: 7 (Espinosa 3, Griffin 2, Garrett 2).