By Doug Smith
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO – It had the strategy of chess, the tension of a nuclear countdown.
Pittsford Mendon made the final move and eliminated Grand Island, 39-37, in the battle of the Vikings for the Far West Regional Class A girls basketball championship in Buffalo State’s Houston Gym Saturday afternoon.
No more than five points ever separated the two teams and when GI’s Kassie Bennett followed her own rebound for two with 1:03 left it was dead even at 37.
And there it stuck, GI’s 5-foot-4 Nakaylah Winfield scraping a rebound from the floor, Mendon’s Kristin Powers slapping away a pass, GI ready for a baseline in-bounds with 17 seconds remaining, the scoreboard still bracketed with 37s.
Mendon Coach Todd Julien and GI’s Jenepher Banker drew up their schemes. Twice GI called time. The third time, two jockeying players bumped and GI was called for the foul, offensive. Mendon ball now, still 17 seconds, 80 feet away.
“When there’s a player in there like (GI’s Cassie) Oursler, when you get even one stop of a baseline inbounds, your girls have done great, and we got at least three,” Julien would say later when normal breathing had resumed. “Now we went with a high-screen roll, Lauren (D’Hont) with the ball, and if (GI) comes out to help out, well Lauren made a perfect read. Lay-up.”
Powers, scoreless with two recently-missed free throws, banked it in.
Three seconds remained. Grand Island’s Hail Mary rolled into the pews and Mendon was packing for Troy.
Oursler scored 22 – beautifully distributed, two FG’s in each quarter – and nailed 16 rebounds. Bennett scored nine – also, with one goal in each quarter. Together they pulled GI even at 35 with 2:30 to play, Bennett leading Oursler away from the basket, actually, a long pass which Oursler converted with a 13-foot hook shot, the unchallenged play of the game.
Grace Olszewski’s drive helped bring GI back from 11-6 in the first and Lexi Kalinowski’s conversion of a Winfield feed drew the Blue & White even at 24 in the third. Senior Stephanie Knight muscled her way to some vital rebounds.
“I think our girls did a great job,” said Banker in the final post-game press conference of a 15-year career.
Somewhat overmatched horizontally, Grand Island responded with basic "Banker-ball," — strong discipline, few of the careless passes and unforced travels which had marked games against less adept opponents.
After six turnovers in the first period, Grand Island committed just 17 for the game, three of those attributable to end-of-quarter desperation heaves.
“We had worked so hard on this all season,” Banker said, but now, there was not even a next season for which to plan. She couldn’t consider the prospect. “This one hurts too much.”
VIKINGS LOG: Banker's Grand Island teams won 246 games out of 345 … As overtime loomed, no one had more than three fouls … Grand Island took 14 fewer shots, 15-36 to Mendon’s 15-50 … At least one Mendon proudly sported an array of work-ethic tattoos, a gallery of black-and-blue marks on her upper arm … The Anthem here was all-business, a short & snappy instrumental … The public address thanked the media for its coverage, a nice touch.