ALBANY — Cardinal O’Hara coach Dan McDermott likened his team’s mission here at the Federation Tournament of Champions to a test with two parts.
Although McDermott wasn’t thrilled with the overall grade of the team on Friday morning, the Hawks passed their first test, which sets them up for quite the final exam.
If they pass that test, one given on the last day of the high school basketball season in New York State, Cardinal O’Hara will go down at the top of the class not just for this year, but will take its place as one of the best girls basketball teams in Western New York history.
O’Hara used its speed to get a big lead, then used a savvy spurt in the second half to separate itself from Pittsford-Sutherland and beat the Knights, 73-65, in the Federation Tournament of Champions Class A semifinals at the Times Union Center.
“Just being in the game is great,” McDermott said of Sunday’s final, “but this weekend is a two-part exam. We got through the first part and we’ve got to ace the final part on Sunday.”
The Hawks (26-3) will play for the Federation Class A championship at noon Sunday when it faces Martin Luther King (23-0), the champion of New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League. The Federation brings together the state’s public, Catholic and independent title winners along with the PSAL winners to determine an overall state champion.
O’Hara, which went undefeated against Western New York competition this year, will try to become just the sixth team from Western New York to win a Federation title. It will also try to become just the second large school to do so (Holy Angels won Class B in 1997, when there was a four-class format).
“We’ve just got to get our rest and play our hearts out,” said senior Jontay Walton, who had 13 points and six steals. “I’m very thankful for this opportunity and to do it with this team. We can make history. A Federation title is a big deal, and we’re not taking it lightly.”
An estimated crowd of less than 100 fans for the 10 a.m. Friday semifinal saw O’Hara, the New York State Catholic High Schools Association champion, lead by as much as 15 in the first half thanks to its oppressive pressure defense. O’Hara’s quick hands and feet helped it to 20 steals while the Hawks forced 37 turnovers.
“Defense wins games, and offense puts fans in the seats,” said 5-6 senior Aisha Shabazz, who had eight points and eight steals off the bench.
O’Hara got off to a 25-15 start after one quarter and was up, 41-28, at halftime.
“We played well for spurts, but we did not play well for 32 minutes, and it almost really cost us,” said McDermott. “We felt like we should have been up by about 20 at halftime.”
Pitt-Sutherland, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association champion, rallied back to take a one-point lead late in the third quarter, despite playing without one of its key starters, before O’Hara reasserted itself.
Keyonte Edwards, a 5-7 senior and returning All-Western New York first teamer who scored 13 of her 17 points in the first half, scored on a driving layup in the final seconds of the third that concluded a 6-0 quarter-ending run that put O’Hara up, 52-47, heading to the fourth.
“We needed that desperately,” said McDermott. “That’s the way we need to play the whole game.”
Pittsford-Sutherland, playing without starting 6-1 forward Santita Ebangwese, came within four early in the fourth but the Hawks reclaimed the game with a 7-0 run which featured an excellent off-balance drive and a three-pointer by 5-6 senior Walton, another returning All-Western New York first teamer and the Monsignor Martin Association’s all-time leading scorer.
Senior Kelsey McCarthy, the Hawks’ major post presence at 6-2, had nine of her 10 points in the second half, including a pair of baskets off of nice lobs inside from Walton. Five-foot-8 freshman Andrea Zeigler had 12 points, including a three-pointer. Also hitting one three each for O’Hara, which was the season-long No. 1 large school after being elevated from Class B to Class A this season, were Edwards, Walton, Shabazz and 5-4 freshman Corean Dickson (nine points).
In a scheduling quirk, O’Hara will wait until noon Sunday to play the final. With semifinals and finals being held across three classes for both boys and girls, and all-day seven-game lineups at the Times Union Center on Friday and Saturday, the Federation pushed the girls A final to Sunday afternoon, where it is in a three-game lineup with the Class B girls (1:45 p.m.) and boys (3:30) championships.
MLK received a bye to the Class A final because the Association of Independent Schools did not have a Class A representative.
Mount Mercy will attempt to join O’Hara in Sunday’s championship lineup when it plays independent champion Staten Island Academy in the Class B semifinals at 11:45 a.m. today.