A dream season closed Saturday in heartbreaking fashion for the Shenendehowa boys’ basketball team.
In a stunning 55-51 overtime loss to Aquinas Institute, the Plainsmen’s undefeated season and bid to repeat as state champions ended in the Class AA state semifinals. Senior guard Kevin Huerter scored 30 points, but a tremendous effort from the Little Irish ended the high school hoops career of the 2016 Mr. New York Basketball award winner at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
“They made shots,” Huerter said. “We were up five with a minute to go, and they made shots to win. All game, they played good defense and were breaking down our zone and [making] kickout threes. A lot of shots, a lot of floaters they had seemed to always drop.”
After making a fourth-quarter comeback of its own, Shenendehowa (24-1) was up 45-40 in the final minute of regulation. A 3-pointer from Aquinas Institute (23-2, Section V) junior forward Jason Hawkes cut his team’s deficit to two points with 17.9 seconds to go, and the Little Irish received the overtime-forcing basket from senior Earnest Edwards in the closing seconds.
Around all that action were missed free throws for Shenendehowa, the team’s undoing. The Plainsmen entered regulation’s last minute with a five-point lead and possession of the basketball, but Shenendehowa missed the front end of two separate one-and-one situations and kept itself from putting the Little Irish away.
For the game, Shenendehowa made 7 of 18 free throws. Coming into the state semifinals, the Plainsmen had made better than 70 percent of its foul shots this season.
“It’s not like they were off by a lot,” said Plainsmen head coach Tony Dzikas, whose team’s offensive output was a season-low tally. “[They] looked like they were ready to go down and they’d roll off the rim. I told them that the basketball gods have been kind to us over the last [two seasons], and it today it wasn’t going to happen.”
In overtime, Aquinas Institute’s Edwards — who scored four touchdowns in a 44-19 Class AA football state championship game win this past fall over Section II’s Saratoga Springs — scored the first five points to put the Little Irish in control. The Plainsmen fought back and had a chance late in overtime to tie or take the lead, but Huerter’s magic ran out.
With Aquinas Institute up 53-51, Huerter rebounded a missed free throw from Edwards and raced up the court with less than 10 seconds to go. As he neared the 3-point line, Huerter lost control of his dribble as he started to move himself into a scoring position.
“I tried to plant off my left foot to cross over and my foot slipped out,” Huerter said. “I lost the ball.”
Aquinas Institute recovered the loose ball and was fouled. A pair of game-sealing free throws later, the Little Irish had stunned a Shenendehowa team ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 23 in the USA Today national poll. The Little Irish will now play for a state championship Sunday at 3:15 p.m. against Middletown (20-4, Section IX).
Edwards scored a team-high 21 points for Aquinas Institute, which trailed for nearly the entire game before staking itself to a 36-32 lead midway through the fourth quarter after an 8-0 run. That’s when Huerter came to life. After scoring a dozen points in the first half and none in the third, Huerter closed the final quarter with a 4-for-5 shooting performance for 12 points. In overtime, Huerter scored six more points.
“Kevin is an unbelievable guy,” Edwards said. “He’s Mr. New York [Basketball], so he hit big shots when they needed it. He was great for them, but we just tried to have constant pressure on him, [make] everything hard on him.”
In his Shenendehowa finale, Huerter grabbed nine rebounds and was 7-for-10 from 3-point territory with one of those misses coming on a half-court heave. In a quick ceremony after the loss, he accepted the plaque for his player of the year award. The honor was the latest of many in Huerter’s career, accolades that his coach said never changed his star player’s attitude for the worse.
“Throughout all that, I loved coaching him more and more every day that passed, every week that passed, every month that passed,” Dzikas said. “I love the person he became, the young man he became.”
The loss wrapped up a two-season stretch in which Shenendehowa never lost a home or league game, won two regional titles, and one state championship. Shenendehowa senior guard Petar Bebic said tears were shed in the postgame locker room, but the sting from the defeat did not cloud the Plainsmen’s view on their memorable multi-year stretch of basketball.
“It’s been a special ride,” Bebic said.
Huerter echoed that sentiment. Bound for the University of Maryland next season, he said he’d never lose his Shenendehowa memories.
“I’ll never forget these years,” Huerter said.
That goes for Dzikas, too, whose program will graduate three other seniors — guard Mike Collins, and centers Michael Gillooley and Evan Paddock — along with Bebic and Huerter.
“They made everyone proud,” Dzikas said of his team.
Edwards 9-0-21, Vito 3-3-11, Hawkes 4-0-9, Pickett 3-1-8, Jones 3-0-6. Total: 22-4-55.
Huerter 9-5-30, Pizziketti 4-1-9, Hicks 2-0-6, Bebic 2-0-5, Gillooley 0-1-1. Total: 17-7-51.
Aquinas Institute 10 7 11 17 10 — 55
Shenendehowa 10 13 9 13 6 — 51
Three-point goals: Edwards 3, Vito 2, Hawkes, Pickett, Huerter 7, Hicks 2, Bebic.