Remembering the Champs: Gutsy Patriots triumphed in title game

Plaque reading champions

Schenectady's 1998 NYSPHSAA boys' basketball championship plaque is displayed. (Photo provided)

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The following is a reprint of the game story from Schenectady’s 1998 state championship victory. It appeared in the March 23, 1998 edition of The Daily Gazette.

GLENS FALLS — This one was all about guts and fulfilling a dream.

Trailing in the fourth quarter, its perfect season in jeopardy, Schenectady made all the right moves and overhauled perennial powerhouse Hempstead, 61-51, to capture the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A championship Sunday before a crowd of 3,711 at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

“If we’re down, we’re never out. We’ll fight back,” said Schenectady senior forward Pat O’Connor. “This team is special. There’s no other words to describe it.”

Special, indeed.

Junior center James Thomas scored six of his 18 points over the final 2:18 to fuel a 13-3 game-closing run that sent the Patriot to their record-tying 28th win one season, and to their first state title.

Schenectady will play Catholic High School Athletic Association champion Rice in the semifinals of the Federation tournament Friday night at 9:30 at the Glens Falls Civic Center. Rice, ranked first in the state, was a 75-72 winner over Christ the King Sunday.

“I think if we come out and play, we can win,” said Thomas. “Just because they’re from New York City doesn’t mean they’re better.”

The Federation title game is Saturday night at 9. Grady (PSAL) and Long Island Lutheran (AIS) meet in Friday’ other semifinal at 7:45.

“Four years ago I never thought we’d be here. We had a sub-.500 record,” O’Connor said. “I’m blown away with what’s going on right now.”

“This is the best,” beamed senior forward Justin Hoffman, who, along with O’Connor and Class A most valuable player Willie Deane, has been with the Patriot variety for four seasons. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“This is not a one-year deal. It’s about four years of digging in,” said Schenectady coach Gary DiNola, who guided the Patriot to a spot in last season’s Section II title game. “They paid a price to get here.”

Deane scored a game-high 28 points, and freshman Jason McKrieth took on the role of defensive stopper, holding Hempstead’s Lateef Myles scoreless for six minutes in the decisive fourth quarter. The senior guard had carried Hemsptead to its 69-65 semifinal win against Lockport with a 33-point outburst.

O’Connor and senior guard Jamaar Sims also made big contributions over the final two minutes, with Sims knocking down four clutch free throws to help deny Hempstead (Section VIII, 18-7) its fourth state title since 1989.

“The last 4 1/2, five minutes were as hard as two teams have played in the state this year,” said DiNola. “You saw passion and heart. Both teams were playing on fumes.”

Hempstead held a 41-37 lead moments into the fourth quarter after Myles hit a 3-point basket. But just as Schenectady had roared back to beat Corcoran in the Region  2 championship game last weekend, the Patriot answered the challenge.

“We knew we could beat these guys,” said Deane, who scored 23 points in the Patriots 85-72  semifinal win against Newburgh Free Academy Saturday. “We knew they’d make a run. They weren’t going to lie down and die for us. When they made their run, we were ready.”

“There’s always that fear of losing. It drives you, it pushes you,” said Hoffman. “We didn’t want to find out what it feels like.”

Thomas gave Schenectady the lead for good at 50-48 with 2:18 to go, banking a short jumper off the glass, and, following a Hempstead miss, O’Connor fed Thomas for another inside hoop. The Tiger misfired again, which led to a scoring drive by O’Connor and a 54-48 Patriots advantage with 1:07 remaining.

“You get behind a couple of baskets against a team like them, and it’s hard to come back, especially with their size,” said Hempstead coach Ted Adams. “They have three trees in there.”

Myles hit a free throw after O’Connor’s drive, missed a second attempt, and Sims grabbed the rebound and was quickly fouled. Sims boosted the Patriots lead to 56-49 with a pair from the line, and after Hempstead turned the ball over on one trip down and misfired on another, O’Connor was fouled.

O’Connor missed two free throws with 29 seconds to play, keeping Hempstead’s hope alive, but Thomas immediately dashed any hope with a huge offensive rebound and putback.

Myles made it 58-51 on a putback with 17 seconds showing on the clock, Sims sank two free throws after that, and Deane capped his MVP performance with another free throw.

“We made a couple of mistakes in the end. With an experienced team such as they are, you can’t do that,” Adam said. “The rebound [by Thomas] and the layup [by O’Connor] we gave up, they were big plays for them.”

“We knew if we kept running our stuff, did the little things and didn’t panic, things would fall in place,” said Hoffman.

Before Schenectady pulled away, the teams were never separated by more than four points in the second half. Schenectady responded to Myles’ 3 to start the fourth quarter with a 10-2 spurt to build a 47-43 lead, capped by Deane’s two free throws at the 3:58 mark.

Eric Ferguson hit a baseline jumper for the Tigers of Nassau County, O’Connor made one of two free throws, and after both squads came up empty, Tom Gordon tied the game at 48-48 on a 3 with 2:30 left.

There were seven ties and nine lead changes in the game, which many considered the most exciting game played over the past three days and nights in Glens Falls.

“Hempstead is athletic, they’re quick. They do everything we do,” said O’Connor. “We knew it was going to be a war.”

Thomas, Ferguson, who led the Tigers with 20 points, Myles, who finished with 15, were named to the all-tournament team.

“I will enjoy this one when it’s all said and done,” said DiNola, whose 1987 Mont Pleasant team lost in the state semifinals. “We’ve still got a game left. Hopefully, two.”

Schenectady 16 12 9 24 — 61

Hempstead 10 14 14 13 — 51

Schenectady scoring: O’Connor 2-1-5, Sims 1-4-6, Thomas 9-0-18, McKrieth 1-0-2, Deane 9-8-28, Hoffman 1-0-2. Hempstead scoring: Ferguson 9-0-20, Myles 6-1-15, Gordon 1-0-3, Bell 4-3-11, Edmonston 1-0-2. Team totals: Schenectady 23-13-61; Hempstead 21-4-51. 

Categories: High School Sports, Sports

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