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By Lacey Gardner

Brutal schedule, resilient play leads Andover/Whitesville to back-to-back Section V championships

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No. 1 Andover/Whitesville slams book shut on No. 6 Elba’s Cinderella story, as late stage resilience, clutch free throws fuel propelling towards back-to-back Class D2 titles in 58-55 win  

Story and photo gallery by Chris Brooks, (@iambrooksie on Twitter), wellsvillesports.com

GAINESVILLE — The story began back in mid-January. The Elba Lady Lancers were immediately challenged in the first nine games, being smacked with difficult obstacles presented by Class C powerhouses like Byron-Bergen, Oakfield-Alabama and Alexander, as well as from a Class B juggernaut in Waterloo.

As a result, the Lady Lancers fell into a deep quandary with a 2-7 record.

Make no mistake. Although the Lady Lancers began to fall into uncharted territory, they remained vigilant. And even more so, resilient, as they finished the regular season with wins in eight of their last 11 games, entering Sectionals at 10-10 overall as Class D2’s No. 6 seed. They were battle-tested, and at the same time, hungry and ready to wage war. They were ready to make that trip back to the big dance.

Elba was destined to finish authoring their story in the midst of what could turn out to be the comeback of the season, after getting by Hinsdale, C.G. Finney and Friendship/Scio all in one foul swoop to ultimately reach the Finals for the sixth time in the last seven years.

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But at the same time, there was another team also penning a story of their own. One that also began right around mid-January after tough losses to the hands of Canisteo-Greenwood at the Barkley Showcase and five days later, to Wellsville on the road. They would wind up turning the ship back around in the right direction with wins in 10 of their last 11 games overall, including a hard-fought battle against No. 5 Hammondsport in the Semifinal round to punch their tickets for a return trip to the Finals.

Andover/Whitesville was authoring a story themselves — a potential sequel to be exact. The No. 1 seeds would find themselves on the very last page of their book. The final chapter waiting to be written for their incredible saga: Elba.

One team would complete their story towards the glory that awaited at the closure of their book on Saturday at Letchworth, after a nasty snowstorm wiped out all of Friday’s slated Sectional Final battles, and delayed them back into the weekend. For some, waiting that extra day can be painfully excruciating, from players to coaches, to the fans. But when the wait was over, boy was it more than worth it.

The majority of parking spaces outside were occupied. The bleachers were filled to capacity. The decibel levels were at an all-time high. You knew right then and there that you were going to be in for another instant classic between Andover/Whitesville and Elba, this time for all of Class D2’s splendor.

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To no one’s surprise, the war between both squads went from tip-off until the very last basket. The pace that both teams accommodated along the way, remained unchanged. Long story short: It was an adaptation of what a true and constant oscillation to the finish looked like.

The biggest lead of the game was eight points, and even then, it was never an advantage that was unreachable. The question that was raised: Who would prevail?

You would have to narrow it down to the most minute of details, especially down the stretch of their tug-of-war to close out the epic fight. That being free throws. And when it came down to grabbing the most narrow of edges, Andover/Whitesville would make sure their storybook closed with a championship.

The jubilating feeling after defeating your Sectional archrival can provide a taste of redeeming sweetness. But to do it for the first time in the Class D2 Finals — a stage where Elba has foiled both programs in year’s past, had never felt sweeter. From within the team’s 20-point fourth quarter, Andover/Whitesville buckled down and came in through the clutch, recording a 7-for-10 outing at the charity stripe in between a pair of Vanessa Hall baskets that would help them stay out front for good.

As a result, Andover/Whitesville would put a bow on their second straight Section V, Class D2 Championship, despite one final long heave at the buzzer by the Lady Lancers, as the top seeds squeezed out as tight of a victory imaginable by a 58-55 count.

“When they got to the line for those free throws, they started to get a lot more calm than you’d might expect the girls to be in that kind of situation, especially when it’s that close at the end of the fourth quarter with a Sectional title on the line,” said Andover/Whitesville co-coach Aaron Rawady. “We told the girls to have confidence. We practice free throws every practice for a reason, and some of the girls who went to the line tonight have only been there single digit times all season. It speaks to their character when they stepped up in that moment,

Rawady added, noting that “Regardless of who you play, when you win a Sectional championship, it’s an amazing feeling. Knowing that you beat a really, really good team like Elba, it’s even more special. We told them not to let the No. 6 seed next to their name fool you, because they’re as good as any other team around. To be able to get a win in a Final against a program like that, it’s so special. The kids worked hard for this, and they deserve every bit of this.”

In order to take care of business in the end, Andover/Whitesville (18-4) would have to survive another one of their most grueling battles of the season, going back-and-forth with Elba all throughout while constantly having to fight from behind. Just when they were able to create an opening in the Lady Lancers defense, it was quickly closed back up immediately following.

The majority of Elba’s scores in the early-going would come off a plethora of second chance opportunities in the offensive zone, doing everything from forcing turnovers to collecting the loose boards off the glass. The Lady Lancers did it all while Andover/Whitesville continued to give chase, up by an 11-10 count after the first. The same pace was carried over into the second, where the No. 6 seeds created a lead as much as four.

After Vanessa Hall drove hard to the rim for the first of her three second quarter baskets, Kennedy Augello would help the Lady Lancers flare up with eight of the team’s 12 points, led by a pair of triples from downtown. But just as Elba began to swing the momentum, the top seeds fired right back with seven of the next nine points themselves to pull back ahead with a 21-20 lead in hand.

But the last basket of the half would belong to the Lady Lancers and the second of Augello’s triples, as it ended another dry spell of scoring by giving them the 23-21 lead back to control going into the locker room.

“There were definitely some early game jitters. That’s to be expected at this stage, with some early turnovers, we didn’t rebound really well to start the game,” Rawady said. “We pretty much played from behind most of the game, and the fact that we were able to pull it out speaks how special of a group this really is. At no point where we almost got down by double digits in the third, there was no point where they gave in and packed it up. The experience from last year’s Semifinal game against Elba helped, the Finals against Avoca/Prattsburgh was tight, it carried over into the fourth quarter and the resiliency from the girls on the defensive end to get the stops when we needed to.”

That experience would become quite beneficial in the second half, beginning in the third quarter, where the Lady Lancers started with back-to-back threes from Halie Scouten to branch their lead to eight — the largest advantageous margin of the night, but it would not remain there much longer, as Andover/Whitesville swung the momentum right back with another successful spell of scoring with seven of the next nine points, paced by Hall and Graci Lewis-Ellison, the latter of whom connecting from downtown on a three of her own.

Elba’s lead remained glued together behind another strand of capitalizations off second chance opportunities underneath, allowing them to stay out in front before Andover/Whitesville assembled a two-minute drill to close the quarter out. Once more, Hall took command of the offense to close the gap to a pair of points heading into the fourth quarter, as the top seeds finished with eight of the quarter’s last nine points.

At the bench, Rawady’s co-coach, Jake Bannerman offered a piece of his advice for the team heading into the last eight minutes. Simply put: Give yourselves a chance to win.

“We had to take care of the ball, and keep playing hard defense,” he said. “We may have given up 55 to them, but defensively besides the lapses and rebounding, we made their lives difficult. They score a lot of points, they’re quick and athletic, they love to shoot. Our girls were up for the challenge, but after how sloppy we played against Hammondsport on Tuesday to get here, I think that really helped our girls realize that even though we make mistakes on offense, we can still get after it on defense and give ourselves a chance. The girls have really bought into that the last three, four weeks.”

If the game was going to see an opening of some sort, both teams would have to keep digging in on the hardwood across the final eight minutes in a true fight-for-your-life tussle. Andover/Whitesville flipped the switch first with the first five points of the quarter, opening with a nifty Vanessa Hall pass under immense triple coverage pressure by Elba, to a wide open Kennedy Bledsoe underneath the basket at the back door to tie the game at 40. They would regain the lead a short time later with Gabbi Hall knocking down an enormous triple.

Elba would pull dead even with Andover/Whitesville again at 44 with 3:22 left to play, as they fought tooth and nail again to cash in on another big second chance basket. The back-and-forth pace settled back in once and for all to close out the battle, as both teams now had to make sure that every score counted. With a narrow 50-49 lead in hand with under a minute left, who would you rather have taken a big step up in the game’s waning seconds?

How about the team’s 2,000-point scorer?

On back-to-back possessions, Vanessa Hall turned up the heat with a pair of clutch baskets, driving the lane against the Elba defense on the way up to the rim, where she tucked away a pair of lay-ins to gain a five-point Andover/Whitesville lead with 33.4 seconds left. After the Lady Lancers responded with a three-point play from Sydney Reilly, the fouling game would begin.

Hall, Lewis-Ellison and Gabby Terhune all knocked down big shots at the charity stripe with under 30 seconds remaining to essentially put the game on lock, branching out the team’s lead to six before a last-second heave by Elba sank through the twine to close out the night, as Andover/Whitesville warded off the late push from the Lady Lancers to capture their second straight Class D2 Championship.

Hall was the primary driving force behind all of the team’s efforts across the second half, as she posted 18 of her game-high 28 points in the final 16 minute session.

“I think her number is 3, but all kidding aside, the girls really stepped up big time,” Bannerman said. “Everyone knows that we run our offense directly through her, and we need her to touch the ball on every possession that we get. The girls did a great job of picking up the slack after Vanessa was doubled or even tripled, and then we had a bunch of girls hit free throws down the stretch. Kennedy, Graci, Gabby T, Gabbi Hall. That’s big, especially at a time where their hands were shaking and the gym was packed. It was amazing for them to get that Sectional patch.”

Following up Hall’s performance was Bledsoe, who finished with 10 points. Lewis-Ellison concluded with eight points.

The journey is not over for Andover/Whitesville by any means. Now, they now begin another chapter — the Class D State Qualifier, where they now take on Class D1 Champion Keshequa for a chance to partake in next weekend’s Far West Regional at Buffalo State University. The two champions will meet at Mount Morris on Tuesday to decide it all in a 6 p.m. tip-off.

Back-to-back champions!

Bannerman says that his team will be ready to answer the call, including Lewis-Ellison, who has shown a tremendous amount of growth since the start of this season, as he hopes that will continue on for time to come.

“Keshequa is a great squad, but we’re pretty darn good too. With the way that the girls have stepped up recently, we will be ready for the challenge.,” he said. “Graci shot out of a cannon into Sectionals, and since they’ve started, she’s become a beast leading the team down the floor, helping Kennedy out. To see that as a sophomore, that’s amazing. Not only amazing going into this game, but going into next year, where she will have an even bigger role for us.”

Elba 11 12 17 15 – 55

Andover/Whitesville 10 11 17 20 – 58

ELBA: Halie Scouten 5 1-2 13, Lydia Ross 4 1-4 9, Sydney Reilly 4 1-1 10, Kennedy Augello 4 0-0 11, Ava Chatt 1 0-0 2, Maddie Hall 2 0-0 5, Mariah Ognibene 2 1-2 5. Totals: 22 4-9 55.
ANDOVER/WHITESVILLE: Vanessa Hall 12 3-5 28, Graci Lewis-Ellison 3 1-2 8, Gabby Terhune 1 1-2 3, Zoe Baert 2 0-0 4, Gabbi Hall 2 0-0 5, Kennedy Bledsoe 3 4-6 10. Totals: 23 9-15 58.

3-point goals: Elba 7 (Augello 3, Scouten 2, Reilly, Hall), A/W 3 (V. Hall, Lewis-Ellison, G. Hall).
Total Fouls: Elba 18, A/W 11. Fouled out: Scouten (Elba), Reilly (Elba), Ognibene (Elba).

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