NIAGARA FALLS — It’s that time of the basketball season when Niagara Falls is just two wins away from playing for a championship in the Buffalo State Sports Arena – the Wolverines’ unofficial home court since 2001.
While that may not be shocking, what might be is that Falls’ girls team is the one who’s that close to earning a title shot at the mecca of Section VI playoff basketball and not the longtime powerhouse Wolverines boys program, which enters its postseason tournament as a No. 7 seed.
The sectional tournament begins tonight for some boys and girls teams. Unlike past seasons, the championship games in all classes – except C-D – will take place at Buffalo State’s Sports Arena.
And unlike past seasons, Niagara Falls’ girls team enters the postseason as a bona fide contender for the Class AA championship instead of a non factor.
The Wolverines (16-2) captured their first Niagara Frontier League championship since the merger of old Niagara Falls and LaSalle high schools in 2000. They won the league in perfect 14-0 fashion to earn a No. 2 seed in the AA bracket.
They don’t have to play until next Tuesday’s quarterfinals when they will play the winner of Thursday’s Orchard Park (10-8) versus Lancaster (7-11) game.
Defending champion Jamestown (16-2) is the No. 1 seed.
What will the Wolverines do in their down time this week? Basking in their achievements doesn’t sound like an option.
“We’re not done yet,” senior Victoria Pryor, a four-year starter who leads the Wolverines in scoring at 19.2 points per game, prior to Monday’s practice. “We wanted to win the NFL, whether that meant tying Lockport or Kenmore West (and sharing the crown, that would have been fine). We did one thing that wasn’t a goal. We never set out to go undefeated in the league. We had a pizza party, said congratulations, but that was it.”
Getting to Buffalo State is clearly the next goal for Falls –a venue where the school’s boys program has won nine Section VI championships since 2001.
Pryor leads an offense in which four players average double-digits. Bianca Brown follows at 11.9 ppg.
“This week is a big week of practice. We know we have to improve,” fourth-year Falls coach Mike Esposito said. “We have to get better every day in practice. We think if we do that, we have a shot at winning the sectionals. … We’re trying to do something the school hasn’t done in a long time.”
A Niagara Falls city girls basketball team hasn’t won a Section VI championship since 1988. These Wolverines, who make up for lack of height with a defensive tenacity reminiscent of Pat Monti’s old championship boys teams at LaSalle, also are the first city girls basketball team to win the Niagara Frontier League since 1991.
The Wolverines’ tallest player is 5-foot-6 Ijonana Laster (10.2 points per game), who typically guards the opposing teams’ top post threat. If a team has two big players, 5-5 point guard Toni Polk (12 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 5.0 steals per game) draws that assignment.
Perhaps, this week’s practice-hard approach is the best formula.
A willingness to work along with a dedication to get better (via attending clinics, camps, summer practices together) provided the Wolverines with an opportunity to escape the abyss of single-digit win campaigns and slowly step out of the shadow of the more decorated boys team at the school.
They believe in making the game 94 feet. They willingly ‘D’ up because a defense that averages 16 steals per game fuels their quick, transition offense. The Wolverines have won their last 11 games by a margin of 23.3 points.
“The girls believe in playing defense,” said Esposito, who was an assistant on the Falls boys team that won the state Federation title in 2005. “We try to contest every pass. Put pressure on their guards, wear them down. Press them the whole game, and we have that spurt ability. The run may not come in the first or second quarter but eventually, it will come.”
Pryor remembers what it was like seeing the boys team play at the Sports Arena when she was younger. She remembers the atmosphere and has always dreamed of playing in that setting in a meaningful game.
The Wolverines are two wins away from that, but there’s a good reason she and her teammates won’t think about that March 5 final.
“If we lose now, we’re done,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure. ... We talked about it. We practice hard, we can make State. To play in front of that crowd, with that intensity and all that attention on us, that’s what we want.”