By Doug Smith
Niagara Gazette — SANBORN – For the fifth consecutive year, and for the seventh year in 10, Grand Island will carry the banner of Section VI into the state girls’ basketball championships.
Tuesday at Niagara County Community College, the Lady Vikings ousted frequent vyer Pioneer, which came up short in more ways than one. It was 46-29 and didn't feel even that close.
With a five-inch reach advantage on the tallest Eagle, Lady Viking Cassie Oursler plucked rebounds like low-hanging fruit, often two or three at a time, 28 in all, and blocked eight shots besides. Senior team mate Kassie Bennett, with more touches than in any other playoff game, grabbed 12.
With an off-its-game Pioneer team putting up first-half shooting like an interest rate (13 percent, 3 for 23), it was fairly clear sailing for the Vikings.
Even with its four consecutive titles, few figured Grand Island to go this far.
“It was frustrating early in the season,” retiring coach Jenepher Banker said as her rightfully proud girls took their Oscar moments in front of the post-game cameras, giggling, blushing and sweating. Early in the year Island was losing, sometimes big, but never got used to it.
“We finally figured it out,” Banker said. “And they worked, worked hard.” Oursler, she said, “worked harder than she ever has in her life,” as she prepares for a Divison I career at Robert Morris near Pittsburgh. She scored 23.
Pioneer went more than five minutes without a field goal, puffing up air balls, but coach Bill Connelly, a good friend and summer colleague of Banker, had his shorter charges pinching enough to block Oursler’s first three field goal attempts, before she broke through with a tap-in four minutes in.
From 14-9, GI had a significant five-point second-quarter run as Bennett fed Stephanie Knight twice around an Oursler free throw. Oursler putting up four shots in one sequence, the Vikings pulled away to 30-16 in the third, Dakayla Winfield adding one of her signature pull-up shots.
Grace Olszewski buoyed GI through the stretch sail. Captain Shannon Rogers scored 11 for Pioneer.
Banker said she felt blessed by the playoff match-ups which provided only minimal challenges after a narrow win over Williamsville South in the very first round.
The turnovers, which gave much of the first half the look of playground ball, were “something we’ve struggled with all year,” said Banker. Ball protection will be crucial and the Lady Vikings encounter the Section V (Rochester) champs Pittsford Mendon at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Far West Regional at Buffalo State.
LADY VIKINGS’ LOG: It was a full house in the N-Trip gym at game time… In the house: another banker, First Niagara manager Mike Samland… Two tip-offs started the game when the first resulted in another tie-up… GI went three-less for the second consecutive game but shot just about 40 per cent (21-54) from the field… Most of the Pioneer players got plenty of hang time on high-arcing free-throw attempts… The hosts upped the ante with pizza in the media room.