WHITESBORO, NY — Most teams around the section have a motto for their season, usually a quote or sentence that you’ll normally see in big, bold letters on their warmup attire. Throughout the 2018-19 season, besides their school name, there’s been only one word on the Rome Free Academy warmup attire, one they’ve certainly lived up to all season: Chaos.
“Chaos is our style; it’s the way we play,” RFA head coach Nick Medicis said. “It’s been our motto all season: create chaos.”
That chaos they’ve created is evident all over the Tri-Valley League: the Black Knights were 15-3 (10-1 in the TVL Colonial Division) and primed to clinch the league title going into Friday night’s game against Whitesboro. One thing they didn’t plan on, however, was the Warriors creating a little chaos of their own.
Junior Damien Call led all RFA scorers with 17 points, but he and the rest of the team had to sweat out the last minute of the game. Fortunately for the Black Knights, what would have been the game-winning shot by Whitesboro senior Joey Panuccio fell heartbreakingly short, giving them the 59-57 victory and the outright Tri-Valley League title. The Warriors also held the Black Knights to their lowest point total this season (RFA averages 83 points per game and before tonight, hadn’t scored less than 69 in any game.) Tommy Morreale led all scorers with 24 points in the loss.
“It’s definitely a great feeling,” senior Zachary Wilbert, who contributed to the victorious RFA effort by putting in 16 points and grabbing five rebounds. We wanted this a lot, our names and numbers up on that banner and that home game for sectionals.”
“It feels great,” Call said of the win and the title. “We definitely worked for it and our next goal is to get through the next round of sectionals and work from there.”
The Knights were definitely in sectional form from the opening tip, disrupting the Whitesboro offense with a solid full-court press. This allowed Call to carry RFA to an early 8-2 lead, on the back of two big long-range shots by the junior. That lead would balloon to 14-4, led by Call’s eight points, halfway through the fourth. However, those four points would come from Whitesboro senior Tommy Morreale, who still continued to be a force under the basket.
Morreale and fellow senior Collin McAndrew would lead the Warriors through the first quarter, grabbing ten of the team’s 12 points (classmate Avery Cook would have the other two). However, turnovers would hurt the Warriors throughout the back half of the first period, allowing the Black Knights to outscore Whitesboro 9-4 in that period of time. A basket by senior Anthony Cudhea (his only points of the game) at the buzzer brought the lead back to 23-12 at the break, and the Black Knights looked to be rolling toward their second straight TVL title.
“The first quarter, we came out with a lot of energy,” Wilbert said. “We definitely picked it up tonight. I knew we had the potential.”
What helped RFA in the second period was a big three-pointer by senior Camron Williams to quickly bring the lead to 14. Defensively, the usually strong presence of Avery Cook under the basket was thwarted by Wilbert and junior Jaelen McNatt, allowing the Black Knights to break out into fast breaks and hold Whitesboro’s second-chance points to a minimum. Wilbert and McNatt would hold Cook to three points total in the first half, while allowing Williams to flourish. The senior was the only one to have more than one field goal in the quarter, knocking down three for eight points. Unfortunately for RFA, Whitesboro was able to chip away slightly just before the half, outscoring the Black Knights 16-13 to take the lead under double digits and a 36-28 deficit going into the locker room.
“I thought we came out strong tonight,” Medicis said. “When we won the first, they slowed the tempo and we needed to prove we could get stops on defense.”
“Our goal was to slow them down all night,” Whitesboro head coach Garrett Herthum said. “We’ve been going against their style for a while. We tightened our defense and told our guys, ‘At this time, we have to be at this score to keep it close.'”
The third quarter started out slow and sloppy for both teams. The Black Knights put themselves behind the figurative eight-ball early with a small spate of fouls, and neither team could find the basket early, both teams picking up just a single basket after the first two minutes. That small streak put the Warriors on the free-throw line early, and they took advantage, cutting the lead to six early on.
That would be as close as Whitesboro would get for the time being, as Wilbert was able to get hot at just the right time. The senior hit two big long-range shots and lay in another to extend the lead to double digits into the three-minute time-out. Even with the rest and pep talk from Herthum, the Warriors could not get any closer, as the pressing RFA defense kept Whitesboro from going to their bread and butter: the short-range layup. That helped RFA outscore Whitesboro 16-11 en route to a 52-39 lead going into the final period.
“When we looked up at the end of the third quarter and saw the score wasn’t going their way, they did what they had to do. Going into the third and fourth quarters, we just told our guys, get into your spots and take advantage,” Herthum said. “We got some looks and we were able to get behind their press.”
That press stymied the Warriors early on, but crisp passing by Whitesboro allowed the Warriors to chip away at the lead all through the fourth quarter. The Knights would use the press and Syracuse’s traditional 2-3 zone through most of the first half, but on the other side, the offense went stone-cold, missing shots that would have more than likely put the game out of reach. All it actually did was allow Whitesboro to up the tempo, using the fast break to their advantage to cut the lead to ten halfway through the final period.
“It was good for us to play in their tempo tonight,” Call said of the press-breaking offense. “[Coach Medicis] told us when sectionals roll around, we’re going to have to get stops like this. We’re not always going to get our tempo all the time.”
“For our press to be on, we have to score,” Medicis said. “[Whitesboro] did a really good job of slowing us down. We got conservative and it almost bit us.”
Those last four minutes were when all of the scorers from Whitesboro seemed to come alive. The trio of Joey Panuccio, Zach Britt and Morreale put the team on their back, seemingly sinking all their shots (from both the field and the free-throw line) to cut the lead to 2 going into an extended time-out with just seconds left in the period. That gave Whitesboro a chance to tie or win with just two seconds left. Unfortunately, Panuccio’s shot from long range fell just short at the buzzer, leading all fifteen players on the RFA bench to celebrate on their rival’s court.
“I was nervous when he chucked it up,” Wilbert said. “It didn’t go in, though, so it’s all good for us.”
According to Herthum, that was the way they had drawn it up, to take whatever shot the Black Knights gave them.
“I told Joe [Panuccio], if you catch it and can make the shot, go ahead,” Herthum said. “We’re going for the win. Let it fly and shoot with confidence. This was a playoff game for us. When push comes to shove, this will make us better later. Our guys have been here for three years. We’ve never looked past an opponent, we have to do that again. I told them let this sink in for 24 hours, then we’ll get ready for [the season finale against] New Hartford.”
The win gives the Black Knights an inside track to a home game to start the Section III playoffs next week, and likely a relatively easy road to the Carrier Dome in just a few weeks. For Medicis, all 19 games they’ve played this year (including 12 in the Tri-Valley League) have prepared them for the much harder task of bringing home a Section III Championship banner.
“It’s been fun in the TVL, it really has,” Medicis said. “[This season] shows our growth. We got beat up a little earlier on in our careers, and we’ve grown from that. This is a tough league and they’ll prepare us for Sectionals.”
With their brand of chaos, it’s safe to say that the Black Knights are prepared for the chaos that is the Section III Class AA basketball playoffs.
RFA Black Knights 59, Whitesboro Warriors 57
Black Knights 23 13 16 7 59
Warriors 12 16 11 18 57
RFA Black Knights (59)
Camron Williams 4 0-0 10, Jeremiah Bartholomew 1 4-5 6, Damien Call 5 5-10 17, Anthony Cudhea 1 0-0 2, Jordan Baldwin 1 0-0 2, Andrew Recoo 3 0-0 6, Zachary Wilbert 6 1-1 16. Totals 21 10-16 59.
Whitesboro Warriors (57)
Joey Panuccio 2 2-3 6, Zach Britt 2 3-6 7, Collin McAndrew 5 1-2 12, Tommy Morreale 10 2-4 24, Avery Cook 3 2-6 8. Totals: 22 10-21 57.
Halftime: RFA 36, Whitesboro 28.
Three-Point Field Goals: RFA 7 (Wilbert 3, Williams 2, Call 2), Whitesboro 3 (Morreale 2, McAndrew).
Total Fouls: RFA 17, Whitesboro 14.
Records: Whitesboro 16-3, 9-2 TVL Colonial; RFA 16-3, 11-1 TVL Colonial.
Warriors 13 23 19 12 67
Knights 20 8 18 12 58