SYRACUSE, NY — The rubber match between the Cooperstown Hawkeyes and the Utica Academy of Science Atoms was expected to be nothing short of a barnburner between the cream of the crop in Class C.
What they didn’t expect, however, was a game like they got at Jim Boeheim Court on Sunday. After all, the last two times these teams met, each team had taken a game, and by double digits, no less (UAS by 14 last month, and the Hawkeyes by 15 back in December).
Senior Jack Lambert led a fourth-quarter comeback in which the Hawkeyes outscored the Atoms 21-11 en route to a 61-57 victory and their third title in four years. For the senior, who scored 23 and was named the tournament MVP, sharing the win with his father, head coach John (who was named Section III Coach of the Year), made the redemption even sweeter.
“He’s my rock,” Lambert said of his father. “He’s everyone’s rock. It’s so amazing having him on the sidelines.”
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, the Atoms controlled the tempo from the opening tip, starting the game out on a 6-0 run, led by their usual crew of senior Ryan Maddox and sophomore Dekwan Grant. Defensively, the Atoms’ full-court press continued to befuddle the usually fast-paced offense, only allowing one Cooperstown basket in the first four minutes. As a matter of fact, the Hawkeyes would only make four of their first nine shots from the field in that quarter, almost matched by their performance at the free-throw line (in which they made all three).
The Hawkeyes would chip at the lead ever so slightly in the first period, helped along by four points by junior Ryan Lansing. Defensively, the Hawkeyes finally brought in their big man, sophomore John Kennedy, late in the period. He certainly followed in the footsteps of his brother Owen, being an imposing force under the basket to keep the Hawkeyes in the game. The Atoms, however, were playing like a team possessed, going 7-15 from the field, even enduring a late 6-0 Cooperstown run as time ran out in the period. When the dust settled on a rough-and-tumble first period, the Atoms were clinging to a slim 14-11 lead.
“I was a little concerned,” the elder Lambert said of the decidedly rough first half. “But it was a physical game. We just chipped away all night. As much as you don’t want nerves when you come here, we had them.”
That rough play continued well into the second period, as key players for both teams racked up foul after foul. In total, 21 fouls were called in the second half, including three on senior Noah Lifgren for the Hawkeyes and for bench player Jordan Donato for the Atoms. That was the aggression the Atoms needed, as they would start out with a three-pointer by Maddox (who would be the only one with any points from the field — grabbing 11 of his 15 points in the quarter that way). However, the smaller, speedier Atoms could not compete with the giant under the basket in Kennedy, who managed to lead the Hawkeyes with four rebounds in the half. Offensively, Cooperstown turned to senior Calvin Sandler, who forced the Atoms to the perimeter and kept the Hawkeyes within single digits.
“We just needed to play our game at our tempo,” the younger Lambert said .”We needed to do what we do best.”
It would be Maddox that would steal the show in the second quarter, however, slashing through the Cooperstown defense with abandon to maintain their lead. However, the fouls began to mount for both teams, as most of the final minutes of the first half were spent at the free throw line, and that would keep the lead manageable for the Hawkeyes, taking a 34-27 deficit into the locker room with Lambert getting most of his nine points to that point from the foul shot.
“We started fouling too much, and you can’t foul Jack [Lambert],” Utica Academy of Science head coach Anthony Lee said. “They hit their free throws and we didn’t. That was the turning point of the game.”
As it turned out, the free throw and the foul count would become integral as the teams came out for the second half. The usually potent offenses of both teams started out stone-cold, going the first minute of the game without a basket, and the first three minutes stuck at just one basket. What made matters worse for the Hawkeyes was the fact that their two big men — Lifgren and Kennedy — got into foul trouble, the senior picking up his fourth and the sophomore his third. Even the usually-careful Lambert picked up his third late in the period, but not before a big three-pointer cut the lead to five with just two minutes left in the period.
The Hawkeyes would only shoot a dismal 33% from the field, but thanks to their shut-down defense, they held Utica Academy of Science to just 29%. The biggest stat came from long range, in which Cooperstown was a perfect two-for-two, while Utica Academy of Science only made one of their five attempts. That allowed the Hawkeyes to outscore the Atoms 13-12 in that period to cut the lead to just six as they went into the homestretch.
“Everyone was up in the fourth quarter…everyone just brought it,” Lambert said. “We knew we were going to win; we just had to have the energy at the right moment.”
That energy came from the first seconds of the fourth quarter, as Cooperstown now began to press the Atoms all the way down the court. That pressing defense allowed the turnovers that keyed a 7-2 run and quickly cut the deficit to just one point. As a matter of fact, that defense kept the Atoms scoreless for almost the first three minutes of the final quarter.
“We had our chances, but we turned the ball over. We didn’t take care of the ball,” Lee said. “That allowed them to do their half-court stuff. They’re so good at the half-court stuff.”
“We played hard throughout the game,” Maddox said of his team’s lapse in judgment to start the final period. “We just made some careless mistakes and let them back in. That shouldn’t have happened.”
Maddox would keep the Atoms in the game right up to the end, but the final straw came with just 3:45 left, when a layup by junior Ryan Lansing gave Cooperstown their first lead of the game. Up to that point, the Atoms had led all but three seconds of the game (those were the first three seconds of the game, where they were tied at zero). Unfortunately, once the Hawkeyes grabbed the lead, they would not let go of it, keeping the usually potent shooting of Maddox and the Atoms at bay for the rest of the quarter. The Atoms would not go away, hitting a short jumper to put them within one with just nine seconds left. That was as close as they would get, however, as Cooperstown would put the game away from — where else? — the free-throw line, finally putting the game out of reach with two from senior Jesse Furnari (his only points of the game) as the Hawkeyes finally got the redemption they had been craving since last March.
“The kids should get all the credit,” Lambert said. “Our kids played so much like a unit…they’ll remember this in 25 years. None of these kids are out for themselves. It’s just a will to win.”
That redemption comes with some excellent rewards for the Hawkeyes: their third banner in four years. For Lambert, who came oh-so-close in their loss to Tully last year, the redemption was even sweeter that anyone could imagine.
“We knew we had to work hard…that [loss to Tully] stung,” Lambert said. “But we knew what we were capable of and we went out and did it.”
However, the runners-up from the Utica Academy of Science could bank on one thing from the loss: a meteoric rise from a mediocre season in Class D last year to one of Section III’s best at Class C in just two years. Two people that certainly know that the Atoms would make just as much noise next season were Lee and Maddox.
“I wish that we won, but they’ll learn from their mistakes,” Lee said. “Hopefully they’ll prevail next year. I just wish Cooperstown the best of luck [in regionals].”
“It’s a great feeling to be here,” Maddox said, “but with the loss we laid the blueprint to get back here next season. I told them we can make it back here, we just need to put the work in.”
For Cooperstown, the work begins anew on Monday, as they will advance to another familiar place: the Floyd L. Maines Veteran’s Memorial Arena, where they will face off against another familiar foe: Section IV champion Unadilla Valley, whom the Hawkeyes defeated by just three points back in the beginning of the season. The younger Lambert was ready to go, but first, there was some more important work to do: celebrate another sectional crown with his team.
“It’s going to be great, but I think we’re going to enjoy this one for tonight,” Lambert said. “We’ll get right back to it tomorrow.”
Cooperstown Hawkeyes 61, Utica Academy of Science 57
Section III, Class C Championship
Hawkeyes 11 16 13 21 61
Atoms 14 20 12 11 57
Cooperstown Hawkeyes (61)
Ryan Lansing 4 3-4 11, Calvin Sandler 3 2-5 9, Jack Lambert 5 12-13 23, Jesse Furnari 0 2-2 2, Noah Lifgren 3 2-2 8, John Kennedy 2 4-6 8. Totals: 17 25-32 61.
Utica Academy of Science Atoms (57)
LaMarcus Merchant 2 5-9 9, Dekwan Grant 3 0-0 7, Ryan Maddox 9 4-6 24, Taysir Hakim-Monterio 3 0-0 6, Darius Stuckman 0 2-2 2, Shamar Mills 0 1-4 1, Drayton Belton 3 0-0 6, Edward Crowder 1 0-0 2. Totals: 21 12-21 57.
Halftime: Utica Academy of Science 34, Cooperstown 27.
Three-Point Field Goals: Utica Academy of Science 3 (Maddox 2, Grant), Cooperstown 2 (Sandler, Lambert).
Total Fouls: Utica Academy of Science 23, Cooperstown 21.
Total Rebounds: Utica Academy of Science 43 (21 offensive, 22 defensive), Cooperstown 30 (10 offensive, 20 defensive).
Records: Cooperstown 23-2, Utica Academy of Science 20-2.
Section III Class C All Tournament Team:
Jordyn Lanaux, Herkimer
Joel Bloomer, Weedsport
Ryan Maddox, Utica Academy of Science
Dekwan Grant, Utica Academy of Science
Ryan Lansing, Cooperstown
Class C Coach of the Year: John Lambert, Cooperstown
Class C Tournament MVP: Jack Lambert, Cooperstown