By John D'Onofrio
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — The tears flowed freely down the face of veteran Niagara-Wheatfield head coach Diane Fegatilli.
A Niagara Frontier League and Section VI second fiddle to Lockport for more than a decade and losers twice this past NFL season by a combined 49 points to the league unbeaten, the No. 6 Lady Falcons were the deserved underdogs to the No. 2 Lady Lions yet again — and things weren't expected to change for at least another long year.
But everything, including the venue, changed in Friday night's Section VI Class AA girls basketball semifinal in the neutral Kenmore West gymnasium, where the Lady Falcons out-worked Lockport for four quarters and stunned the defending sectional champions, 50-47.
“This is amazing. I can't believe we did it,” beamed Lady Falcons senior co-captain Rachel Pawlak, whose game-high 25 points, including three 3-point baskets, fueled the win. “We prepared really well. We really studied the films and we had a good game plan.”
Added senior co-captain Melissa Smith (18 points, 4 assists), “We've played together for three years, Rachel and I, and we've known each other since we were 12. I can't believe it!”
The Lady Falcons (15-6) earned a trip to Tuesday night's 8 p.m. AA final against top-seeded Jamestown (17-3) by doing exactly as Fegatilli told the Union-Sun & Journal on Thursday, “rebound and eliminate second shots.”
N-W sophomore center Allyson Czaja (5 points, 14 rebounds), junior forward Kirsten Klettke (7 rebounds) and junior forward Melissa Elnicki (2 points, 4 rebounds) combined for 25 rebounds as the Lady Falcons ruled the boards at both ends throughout and made all the clutch shots.
“We beat Lockport early in my career, but it's been a long time,” Fegatilli said, wiping away tears, getting hugs from everyone. “We had a good game plan and we stuck to it. Melissa and Rachel did everything they needed to do, scoring points, and Klettke, Czaja and Elnicki got the big rebounds. We out-rebounded them.”
The Lady Falcons opened the scoring and led for most of the first quarter as Pawlak led the way with 10 points in the opening stanza, but Lockport senior Lexi Cheatham (20 points, 2 assists, 3 steals) canned the first of her four 3-point baskets and junior forward Sara Franco (17 points, 9 rebounds) added two inside buckets as the teams headed to the second tied 15-15.
Pawlak opened the second quarter with a 3 that seemed to ignite the Lady Falcons' offense as they proceeded to out-score Lockport 11-0 in the first three minutes to lead 26-15. Moments later, Pawlak swished her second 3-pointer of the stanza and N-W had its biggest lead of the game at 13, 29-16.
But Franco owned the second half of the second quarter, canning four inside buckets, including a buzzer beater off a nice feed from senior Carly Kane (4 rebounds) as the Lady Lions finished with an 11-2 run to trail by just four at halftime, 31-27.
Quick buckets by freshman Gretta Dry (6 points, 3 assists, 3 steals) and senior Allie Cavagnaro (2 points, 2 rebounds) quickly tied the game, but Smith hit three buckets and Pawlak launched another 3-pointer as the Lady Falcons rolled to a 42-37 lead after three.
Cheatham was a one-women scoring machine in the fourth, scoring all of Lockport's 10 points with a pair of 3s, but Smith's clutch 3-pointer down the stretch broke a 47-47 tie with over a minute to go and neither team could find the basket after that. Dry's running one hander down the lane was rebounded by Czaja as the clock hit 0:00 and a wild Niagara-Wheatfield celebration ensued.
“They came out hard. It's hard beating a team three straight times. They weren't going to go down a third time,” said Kane, who along with Cheatham and Cavagnaro played their final basketball games for Lockport.
Added retiring Lady Lions head coach Bill Shaw, “We didn't deserve to win. This is two games in a row where we didn't play well and we didn't execute well. You're going to get beat when you don't play well.”
Friday's AA girls semifinals were moved to Ken West after a leak broke out in the Sweet Home gymnasium late last week, forcing the venue change. No. 1 Jamestown defeated No. 5 Williamsville North, 78-37, in the late semifinal game Friday night.