ALBANY — On the Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball team’s bench at the Times Union Center Saturday morning, there was a makeshift seat cover assembled from a Hawks T-shirt and the picture and story from Friday’s Buffalo News, which described how standout junior Keyonte Edwards was likely not to play.
It was the Hawks’ way of including their teammate, who was unable to make the trip here due to complications from a blood clot in her right shoulder.
She might be on hand to support her teammates today – because Cardinal O’Hara has one more game to play.
O’Hara, playing with thoughts of Edwards on their bench, their minds – even on their Twitter handles – overcame a slow start to beat Scholars Academy of Brooklyn, 66-54, in the Class B semifinals of the state’s Federation Tournament of Champions.
“We were all excited to want to do it for her,” said senior Leah McDonell, whose changed her Twitter nickname to “ForKey” in honor of her teammate. “Every time we did something, we were like, “For Keyonte, for Keyonte — in our huddles, in the locker room. We probably said her name like 30 times today.”
McDonell and junior Kelsey McCarthy each had 18 points as O’Hara (28-1) advanced to today’s 1 p.m. state Federation championship game against public school champion Irvington (23-2).
“It’s just another chapter in this special season,” said O’Hara coach Dan McDermott, whose team has been No. 1 in the small school poll all season while it has beaten Lockport and Sacred Heart. “It’s another case of a special group of kids, who are very resilient and have handle umpteen obstacles this season, and this was just one more. We knew everybody – everybody – had to step up to fill that void, and we got some outstanding performances, as has been the case all season.”
Edwards complained of pain in her shoulder two weekends ago following the Hawks’ win in the state Catholic final, one that earned the Hawks their second straight trip to the Federation tournament. She had several tests at Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and was cleared to play until her condition required a trip to the emergency room this week.
“We had Keyonte on the bench with us – we all got like five texts from her,” said senior forward Sara DiPasquale. “This game was for Keyonte. This game was Keyonte. Every huddle we had was for Keyonte. She’s home and she’s nervous and we did this for her.”
Edwards, a 5-foot-9 junior, averages 15 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 4.0 steals. Not having her on the court for such an important game may have affected O’Hara as it fell behind, 11-4, to Scholars Academy, the champion of New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League.
“There was a lot of emotion — in the locker room right before we went out, we called Keyonte, and I think half of us were crying,” said DiPasquale, before adding with a laugh: “That’s not really a good pregame attitude.”
O’Hara closed the first quarter with a 10-2 run, capped by a McDonell three-pointer (she had three) in the final minute to put the Hawks up, 14-13. The Hawks used their quickness — namely from 5-4 senior Kayla Brown (five steals) and the 5-5 McDonell (four) — to consistently cause turnovers (Scholars had 24, with O’Hara totaling 14 steals) and hurry Scholars’ shots (46 percent in the first half; 35 in the second).
“Me and Leah, we always talk before we get out there,” said Brown (eight points). “It’s like, ‘You’re going to get her, and I’m going to get her.’ We have to make sure we trap the ball really hard — and then we just do it.”
The teams exchanged the lead in the second quarter before O’Hara used a 10-0 run to go up 28-21 and later take a 34-26 halftime lead. In the third, Brown hit a three that gave the Hawks a nine-point lead (41-32) and O’Hara headed to the fourth up 47-36.
Scholars surged back with a 13-6 run to come within 53-49 with 3:33 to go, but McDonell hit two free throws to push the O’Hara lead to six. Scholars junior Jessica Glaz (team-high 18 points, 10 rebounds) scored to make it a four-point game again (55-51), but she fouled out seconds later, with 3:09 left.
O’Hara closed the game with a 15-3 run that started with two free throws by 5-8 junior Jailyn Dickson (five rebounds, three assists) and another big three by Brown that put the Hawks up, 60-51, with less than two minutes to play.
McCarthy, the 6-1 forward, got her 18 on 7-of-15 shooting and she had six rebounds while fellow adept front-courter, 6-foot senior Sara DiPasquale, had five points, 10 rebounds and two steals. Aisha Shabazz, a 5-6 junior, added nine points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
O’Hara is familiar with the kind of powerful program it faces today in Westchester County’s Irvington, which has won four straight New York State Public High School Athletic Association titles as well as two of the last three Federation titles (2010 and 2012). In last year’s semifinals, O’Hara was a tough, testy opponent (30 fouls) for Irvington, hanging within three points in the third quarter before falling, 74-57.
“It’s huge obviously,” McDermott said of the challenge of playing Irvington. “One of the things we’ve been pointing toward all year is the possibility of coming back, and being in this situation, and the potential was obviously very good for them to be back here. They ended our season last year and we were hoping to get another crack at them.
“To come to this point and not have [Edwards] is brutal, but the kids are handling it well. We can’t ask for any more from everybody."