TROY – The Utica-Notre Dame Jugglers had spent more time than they cared to recount on a bus this weekend, shuttling all over the state in a whirlwind tour of college basketball venues (and possible future places to study).
However, what started out as a whirlwind week for the Jugglers ended on a sour note at Hudson Valley Community College.
Senior guard Dante Griffin scored 24 points, while fellow classmate Nick Courto added another eight in a game the Jugglers kept close. However, it was Section II’s Mohonasen getting the last laugh, starting the overtime period on a 9-0 run to eke out a 76-71 victory in the regional finals. The Warriors have punched their ticket to the New York State Final Four in Binghamton with the win, while the Jugglers head back to Utica with the regional runner-up trophy.
“I’m proud of these guys,” Notre Dame head coach Ryan Goux said. “Sectional champion, regional final…they fought hard to get here. They can’t take that away from them.”
From the outset, though, it looked like the Jugglers were going to just blow the Warriors right out of the water. After allowing the first basket to Mohonasen, Notre Dame went on a 10-point tear, assisted by three-point shots from Griffin and junior Treijen Garrett. Add to that a tough presence under the basket from Courto, and the Jugglers cruised to a 12-5 lead halfway through the first quarter.
The tenacious Warriors would not be denied, however. Banking on their own tough presence under the basket from senior Avery Deas, the Warriors smothered the Jugglers in the low post, not letting Notre Dame have any easy shots, and picking off errant passes from all over. When it was all said and done, Mohonasen finished the quarter on an 11-2 run, keeping the Jugglers close on the scoreboard, entering the second period only down 14-13.
“That Notre Dame team is legit,” Mohonasen head coach Joshua Peck said of the Jugglers. “They put up a lot of points…we knew [Griffin] was going to be a player for them.”
It was more of the same from Mohonasen in the second quarter, clogging up the shooting lane with their own big players (none of the Warriors measured below six feet) and not allowing any layups from the smaller Notre Dame players. However, the Warriors could not pull away, as the end of the first half became a back-and-forth affair. In all, the two teams would hit four three-point shots down the stretch to keep the other close. Unfortunately for the Jugglers, they would knock down only four long-range shots in the entire first half, while the Warriors went an impressive 54 percent from the field to keep the lead at one, 28-27 going into the locker room.
“We just didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, and they did,” Goux said.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the third quarter, when the Warriors came out of the locker room firing on all cylinders. Long-range shots from junior Duncan Tallman and senior Greg Van Epps allowed Mohonasen to pull out on an 8-2 run to start. Meanwhile, Deas was a force to be reckoned with, bullying the smaller Jugglers under the basket for almost every single rebound. That would be the way most of the third quarter would go: the triple threat of Deas, Tallman and Van Epps making the tough shots from all over the floor, while Notre Dame continued to play catch-up from the other side of the floor.
The Jugglers would make it a game late, however, as junior Jaylen Warmack hit a clutch three-pointer, as would Griffin, to pull the lead to three. The senior was not done, however, stealing the ball with just a few seconds left and driving the floor to beat the buzzer on a finger roll to cut Mohonasen’s lead to 48-47 at the third quarter buzzer.
The script would be flipped in the final quarter, as the Jugglers would score the first four points to take a three-point lead. Griffin, as he had been for most of the game, continued to buzz around the taller Warriors, picking off several bad passes and turning them into points. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they couldn’t get the lead past three points, as the Mohonasen defense continued to smother shots from everywhere.
“I don’t think they scored many baskets [in the fourth quarter],” Goux said. “They got them from the line. Mohonasen’s a tough team, they fought hard.”
Luckily, the Juggler defense, as they had been all night, kept Mohonasen within striking distance as well, not letting them get any further than three ahead. That set up what would be one of the most dramatic finishes of the night, as with a three-point deficit, Van Epps and Tallman, as they did all night, took advantage, sinking back-to-back shots to give the Warriors the lead with less than 20 seconds left. Junior Derek Lindsay would bring the game back to within one on a late tip-in, and Garrett would tie up the score with just seconds left, going one-for-two on the free-throw line to send the game into overtime.
“At the end of regulation, we almost coughed it up,” Peck said. “Our players recommitted themselves and started knocking down free throws. I think everyone had us as a big dog tonight. We just had to commit ourselves to our defensive mentality.”
That’s exactly what the Warriors did to start the extra period, starting it on a 9-0 run and holding Notre Dame scoreless for almost half of the overtime period. Unfortunately, that was where it started to go off the rails for the Jugglers. Courto would be involved in a shoving match with several Mohonasen players late in the quarter, which would get him an early exit from the game.
“It’s competition,” Peck said. “We preach emotional control. We made it clear they don’t come off the bench.”
In all, three technical fouls would be assessed, two to Mohonasen players for coming off the bench, and one to Courto, which effectively ended his high school basketball career. Neither Courto, nor the rest of the Jugglers were available for comment after the game.
From there, the Warriors played keep-away with the ball, outscoring the Jugglers 17-12 in the final period to celebrate a big victory for the Mohonasen program. While most of the Jugglers left Hudson Valley Community College with their heads hung low, Goux reflected on a great Notre Dame season.
“This whole team, we’ve been playing together since eighth grade,” Goux said. “We play as a team, [and] they did something special together. It was a tough game…we had a lot of opportunities, and we didn’t get anything from them. I’m proud of these guys though, especially the seniors.”
Meanwhile, Peck now has a bigger goal to look forward to: a shot at the New York State Class A championship.
“As the year went on, they slowly started to buy in [the system,]” Peck said. “We’re not just little Mohonasen anymore…we’re playing tough.”
New York State Class A Regional Final
Mohonasen Warriors 76, Notre Dame Jugglers 71 (OT)
Warriors 13 14 21 11 17 76
Jugglers 14 14 19 12 12 71
Mohonasen Warriors (76): Duncan Tallman 9 4-6 27, Jalani Abdul-Aziz 5 3-6 13, Greg Van Epps 5 1-3 13, Tim Febbie 1 0-0 2, Drew Coelho 1 0-0 3, Avery Deas 7 0-0 14, Chase Monroe 0 4-4 4. Totals 28 12-19 76.
Notre Dame Jugglers (71): Dante Griffin 7 5-6 24, Jaylen Warmack 4 4-4 13, Treijen Garrett 4 1-2 12, Derek Lindsay 4 2-2 10, Sam Bianco 1 0-0 2, Douglas Smallwood 1 0-0 2, Nick Courto 2 4-6 8.
Three-Point Field Goals: Notre Dame 9 (Griffin 5, Garrett 3, Warmack), Mohonasen 8 (Tallman 5, Van Epps 2, Coelho).
Total Rebounds: Notre Dame 32 (19 defensive, 13 offensive), Mohonasen 39 (29 defensive, 10 offensive).