In Semifinal instant classic, Wellsville’s Cowburn provides late spark, Dunbar helps finish job while defense stands strong to send No. 4 Lions back to B2 Finals in upset of top-seeded Hornell
Photos and story by CHRIS BROOKS, managing editor, wellsvillesports.com
WAYLAND — It simply does not get any better than this. A classic and historic rivalry not only in the local scene, but across Section V, resurrected in the playoffs one final time. Whenever these two basketball juggernauts come together, it seems like your ticket for entry is worth the price of admission every single time, no matter the venue.
So much amazing talent. So many grueling battles. So many memorable moments. So many years, shared.
Although the stars didn’t quite align for both teams to come together and decide this year’s Class B2 Champion at the very end, meeting one step before the big dance at Blue Cross Arena is just as prime of an opportunity as ever. An opportunity to lay claim on all the bragging rights in the world.
The Lion’s Den. The Seneca Street Zoo.
Wellsville. Hornell. Part Trois. Would you have wanted it any other way?
The site was up north at Wayland-Cohocton, where the $7.30 digital ticket to gain entrance into what would be a packed fieldhouse, was worth every single penny. Both the Lions and Red Raiders engaged in a battle of epic proportions that would linger from the start all the way to the bitter end of the night. Across the majority of the contest, at no point did a lead during the dead heat of competition ever eclipse more than five points.
In short: That’s Wellsville-Hornell basketball, baby.
Immediately following their Quarterfinal bout with No. 5 World of Inquiry back on Saturday, Lions head coach Tom Muska said that there’s no other opponent he’d rather take great satisfaction in taking down than the same Hornell team that handed him his very last defeat.. as a player, at Blue Cross Arena in the Finals. A long-awaited chance at redemption that only a player-turned-coach could dream of.
It was not easy by any means, but through all of the back-and-forth battling, those dreams would soon become a reality.
The rubber match to close out their annual season series was by far and away the most compelling and thrilling battle of the year. With the decibel level continuing to climb after every passing minute, so did the left and right haymakers between each squad, as the game came down to its very last moments. During the fourth quarter, Aiden Cowburn would give the Lions a courageous lift forward into the lead, knocking down an enormous triple to give them the penultimate of leads.
Later down the stretch, they would build off the energy shift. It was Sectional Logan’s turn, as he gathered a wide open pass off a turnover to help provide what would be the game’s final lead change for Wellsville, as all momentum for the last minute in regulation swayed in their favor until the sound of the buzzer. As a result, a return ticket back to the Class B2 Finals was punched for the Lions after redemption was sought for Muska, as the team took down their arch-nemesis on the biggest of nights with a 51-46 victory on Wednesday.
A win that feels much, much different than all those regular season wins this past season, and in year’s past.
“I’m beyond excited to have beaten Hornell. Anytime we do that, I will always feel good. It feels so much more different. It takes like 20 scrimmages to get ready for something like this. It’s 20 scrimmages to get ready for this exact game,” said Muska. “It’s the stuff we tell the kids in the locker room, April in the gym, it’s this game. November in the gym, it’s this game. It feels extra special to win a game like this, especially when you’re fighting to keep your season alive to play for a Sectional title. But our time’s not done. It’s not done. We still have two more days of practice to go back out there and keep getting better.”
The first quarter pretty much detailed exactly how the night was going to go — an all-out defensive war. No advantage eclipsed five points across most of the battle, as the back-and-forth exchanges between Wellsville (13-9) and Hornell began to set up shop with the Red Raiders taking the early 10-8 advantage behind a go-ahead triple from Wyatt Evingham in the last minute and change in the frame.
But the momentum shortly after would begin to sway in Wellsville’s favor for a brief moment in the early stages of the second quarter, when JJ Howard continued a series of deadlocks with Hornell by tucking away a jumper inside the paint. The basket would help them kickstart a 7-0 run of the Red Raiders, a run that the top seeds would ultimately rebound from to end the half.
Gates Miller converted a pair of triples to get the Red Raiders going from outside, the latter of which would find its way down through the twine with 30 seconds left in the half to create level playing ground for the second half with his game-tying, 20-20 basket.
The pace established in the first half would ultimately find its way over into the last 16 minute session the night would have to offer. There was simply no giving way between both teams, even after the Lions found themselves in deep foul trouble with Costello, Howard and Dunbar all pushing the limit towards disqualification with three fouls each.
But that would allow other key contributors to pitch in furthering the team’s cause in place of their compatriots, as Aiden Cowburn and Ty Vogel both stepped up to the plate with a three from downtown, and a magnificent finish underneath the basket respectively, to keep the steam engine fueled.
Although the Red Raiders were able to trim their deficit back down to three at the end of the frame, the momentum began to swing in Wellsville’s favor in the fourth, starting with a big offensive foul drawn by Aidan Riley against Gennaro Picco and his breakaway run to the basket. On the next drive, the second triple from the hand of Cowburn off the bench would soon fall, giving the Lions a 38-34 lead near midway.
“Aiden Cowburn was huge. Those are the kinds of things where you have to know when to trust your gut, and he’s been so strong the past few weeks after bringing him up from JV early,” Muska said. “We thought we could use him to break some of these presses, as well as get a taste of some Varsity speed. It showed tonight, he was doing everything right. We had turnovers still, but they weren’t in the backcourt. We just had to ride that.”
The two teams would create level ground one final time after a Shawn Rose run to the rim completed a four-point sequence off back-to-back drives to deadlock the game at 38 once more for Hornell, as Wellsville assumed control of their own destiny again with Logan Dunbar garnering a wide-open pass off a Red Raiders turnover deep in the offensive zone to push their lead out to 44-40 with less than a minute left to play.
The lead would remain intact until the game’s conclusion, when Wellsville officially sealed the deal on their Saturday morning trip to Rochester, with Dunbar and Howard each adding the final points from inside and at the stripe to lock up the upset over their archrival.
The defensive effort the Lions glued together was one that Muska had hoped to have in order to succeed against Hornell. Through it, they were able to hold two of their superstar shooters — Gennaro and PJ Picco in check across all facets, holding them to a combined 19 points.
The Lions head coach credits their nonstop drive to becoming better on the defensive end during practice leading up to the big Semifinal clash.
“Gennaro averages right around 20 a game. This helps tell us what we know: We can play with anyone, and we can stop anyone. When you have kids like JJ Howard and Logan Dunbar in the back, and then kids like Cody Costello and Aidan Riley in the front, we’re a hard team to beat. You will get pestered up in the front, but even if you get by them, you’re going to have to finish among the trees.”
Muska continued noting the team’s defensive efforts, adding that “We focused so much on defense this week, which might sound like a cop out response, but those Picco boys can really play basketball. We’ve seen it before already, and our goal was to keep Hornell in the 40s. If we could do that, it’s a Wellsville game. Hornell likes to score in the 60s and 70s, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to keep up with them in that race. We had to kind of muddy the waters, and bring it down to our level.”
Dunbar would pace the scoring for Wellsville with a game-high 19 points, 11 of those points coming in the second half to lead the team’s resurgence down the stretch. Following behind was Costello, who finished with eight points. Ty Vogel and Aiden Cowburn each had six points.
Next up is Blue Cross Arena this weekend for the Lions, as they now get set to defend their Class B2 throne on Section V’s grandest stage against the No. 3 Oatkan Knights of LeRoy.
Despite not having the chance to play and win their championship at Blue Cross Arena last season due to COVID-19 restrictions, Muska says his team deserves to finally have their moment in the sun to try and win it all once again.
“LeRoy’s got a terrific big man in the middle in Merritt Holley, he averages around 30 a game. Watching him against Dunbar is going to be a matchup for anyone that’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I felt bad for some of these kids during the last COVID season when we weren’t able to play at Blue Cross, like Logan. He plays great basketball, he has a ton of Sectional wins, but he’s never gone up there. Now he gets that chance, along with some of the others that haven’t gotten that chance. They deserve every bit of this.”
Wellsville 8 12 15 16 – 51
Hornell 10 10 12 14 – 46
WELLSVILLE: Cody Costello 3 0-0 8, Aidan Riley 1 2-3 4, Ty Vogel 3 1-2 7, Logan Dunbar 8 2-3 19, Aiden Cowburn 2 1-2 7, JJ Howard 3 0-0 6. Totals: 20 6-10 51.
HORNELL: Gennaro Picco 4 2-5 11, PJ Picco 4 0-0 8, Wyatt Evingham 1 0-0 3, Shawn Rose 2 4-6 9, Wyatt Argentieri 3 1-5 7, Gates Miller 2 0-0 6, Aaron McInerney 1 0-0 2. Totals: 17 7-16 46.
3-point goals: Wellsville 5 (Costello 2, Cowburn 2, Dunbar), Hornell 5 (Miller 2, G. Picco, Evingham, Rose).
Total Fouls: Wellsville 16, Hornell 15. Fouled out: G. Picco (HHS).