It’s a rubber match Western New York hoop fans have been waiting all year for: No. 1 Jamestown vs. No. 2 Niagara Falls.
The top two-ranked public high school teams in the area won their Class AA semifinal matchups Thursday night at Buffalo State College, with Jamestown topping Clarence, 73-61, and Niagara Falls moving past Kenmore West, 72-62.
Now the two giants will face off for the third straight year – Jamestown winning in 2011 and Niagara Falls prevailing in 2012.
“It’s what we want,” Jamestown senior captain Tommy Campion said. “We wanted to play them after the game last year.”
In the first game, Jamestown’s backcourt of Campion and Zack Panebianco led the way as the duo scored a combined 42 points, with the sophomore Panebianco tallying 26.
Panebianco has been breaking out lately for the Red Raiders. He scored a game-high 19 in Jamestown’s quarterfinal win against West Seneca West and is turning into more than a complement for the well-accomplished Campion.
The sophomore drove when he saw a lane, shot when he was open, and found streaking forwards slashing through the lane.
“It seems like the last three weeks of the season Zack has been playing with just a load of confidence,” Jamestown coach Ben Drake said. “Tonight might have been his best game of the season.”
Panebianco scored 14 in the third quarter as Jamestown took a 58-39 lead into the fourth.
“We got our rest in the locker room and kind of put it to them,” Panebianco said.
Clarence was led by Bryan Jost’s 19 points, Ryan Funk’s 12 and Emaure Williams’ 11. The Red Devils, who lost to Jamestown in the 2010 final, ended their season at 15-5.
Niagara Falls’ sixth trip to the Class AA final in seven years came without head coach Sal Constantino on the sideline as he tended to a family emergency. Falls was also missing starter Vinzel Watkins, who broke a bone in his foot, but that didn’t keep the Wolverines from running.
After a nervous start by Falls, which saw them trail 5-4 with 3:12 left in the first quarter, the Wolverines finished off the half on a 31-19 run with aggressive man-to-man defense that forced Ken West turnovers and put Falls on the move.
Falls guard JJ Wilkins was the facilitator, scoring a game-high 26 and taking over at times in the second half while Blue Devils big man Quinton Campbell sat out with four fouls.
“JJ was huge in the second half,” Falls assistant coach Carlos Bradberry said. “He plays really fast, but at times when he slows the game down, which he did in the second half, he really becomes a good player.”
But West battled back in the third with a spark from Shay Cuadra, who scored 12 of his team-high 18, including a trey to get back within five at 45-40, firing up the West faithful. But Wilkins hit back-to-back three-pointers to silence the crowd and give Falls the cushion it needed heading into the fourth.
“We always call him the best on-ball defender in the league, tonight he showed his offense,” West coach Todd Banaszak said. “He makes them a different team when he’s clicking.”
This was Ken West’s first-ever trip to Buffalo State; it finished the season 14-7.
Now, it’s Jamestown vs. Niagara Falls, part three, Saturday at 8:15 p.m. back at Buffalo State.