ROTTERDAM — Mekeel Christian Academy boys' basketball coach Chad Bowman believes his team is starting to find its groove at both the offensive end of the court, and the at defensive end.
It was defense that turned around Saturday night's matchup with Niskayuna, and led to a Kirvin Cup championship.
The new-look Lions surrendered just four field goals after falling behind 34-33 midway through the third quarter and ended the Silver Warriors' four-game win streak with a 55-44 triumph at Mohonasen High School.
"We got pushed. We got challenged, and that was good for us," Bowman said. "I think that's a top-four Class AA team, and they're not going to beat themselves. You've got to take it from them."
Mekeel (6-2) did that after Gabe Eldaye's foul shot with 4:29 left in the third quarter had given Niskayuna (4-2) a 34-33 advantage. Mekeel followed with six straight points, and closed out the contest with eight unanswered to cap a 22-10 run that was full of defensive stops.
"You've got to give Mekeel credit," first-year Niskayuna coach Mike Grasso said. "They are very aggressive. They got some deflections on us. They got some steals on us. We've got to be a little stronger with the ball."
Niskayuna used the long ball from twins Ethan and Sean St. Lucia to stay close in the first half. Ethan St. Lucia sank five 3 during that stretch, and his brother added two more as the Silver Warriors trailed 31-25. A 9-2 spurt to start the third quarter had Niskayuna on top 34-33.
"You start to question what you're doing defensively when a team goes 5-for-7 [on 3-point attempts] in the first quarter and 7-for-13 in the first half," Bowman said. "We didn't do a lot to change. We just told them to deny them a little more."
Mekeel played at a different level over the final 12 minutes with its cast that included returning starters Ozzy DeJesus and Al Barnhill, Ricky Rollins, who was a reserve last season, junior varsity graduate Joe Roddy and Schenectady transfer Jonon White. White led the Lions with four steals.
"Our defense was phenomenal at the end," Bowman said.
"When we went to the half, when it was just us and no coaches, we talked about shutting them down," said DeJesus, who was named the tournament most valuable player after collecting 18 points and eight rebounds. "We talked about getting stops and moving the ball when we had it."
Barnhill scored nine of his 13 points in the closing 22-10 push, and DeJesus also connected for nine in the key segment of the game.
Barnhill, an all-tournament selection, and DeJesus both netted 22 points in Friday's 82-45 first-round win against a Catskill team that came in ranked No. 8 in the state in Class B. Mekeel is No. 19 on the Class A poll.
"The first five or six games you saw a lot of 1-on-1," DeJesus said. "The last two games we played well together and beat those two good teams. We gave Section II an eye opener."
DeJesus kick-started the closing 8-0 run with a 3-point play to make it 50-44, and Barnhill finished it with a breakaway slam dunk.
Rollins and White both had nine points for the Lions, and Ethan St. Lucia paces Niskayuna with 19. Sean St. Lucia added eight points and joined his brother on the all-tournament team, and Eldaye had seven points and seven rebounds while drawing three charging calls.
"We battled and fought," Grasso said. "We played our tails off."
Catskill (7-1) got 32 points from Lavon Fernandez and beat Mohonasen (2-6) in the consolation game 64-60. Shawn Gillisslee scored 27 for Mohonasen and joined Fernandez on the all-tourney team.
MEKEEL CHRISTIAN ACADEMY 55,
Mekeel 18 13 12 12 — 55
Niskayuna 17 8 14 5 — 44
Mekeel scoring: Rollins 3-0-9, DeJesus 8-2-18, Roddy 2-0-6, Barnhill 6-1-13, White 3-1-9. Niskayuna scoring: Coleman 1-0-2, Eldaye 3-1-7, Evans 2-0-6, Parker 0-2-2, E. St. Lucia 7-0-19, S. St. Lucia 3-0-8. Scoring totals: Mekeel 22-4-55, Niskayuna 16-3-44.
CATSKILL 64, MOHONASEN 60
Catskill 17 14 21 12 — 64
Mohonasen 13 12 21 14 — 60
Catskill scoring: Fernandez 13-5-32, Johnson 6-2-16, Scott 3-0-6, Gibbs 1-0-2, Haye 4-0-8. Mohonasen scoring: Gannon 5-0-12, Cornell 1-0-2, Febbie 4-1-12, Coelho 2-0-5, Marsh 1-0-2, Gillisslee 11-2-27. Scoting totals: Catskill 27-7-64, Mohonasen 24-3-60.