SYRACUSE — It had gnawed at the McGraw basketball team and its coaches for a year.
A 71-41 loss to fellow Central Counties League member Madison in last season’s Section 3 Class D championship game even inspired a team slogan, one that showed up on the back of the Eagles’ warmup shirts this season — “Unfinished Business.”
Sunday afternoon in the Carrier Dome, coach Matt Martins’ fourth-seeded team got off to a quick start, held on and finished that business with a 54-53 victory over — who else? — the third-seeded Blue Devils to claim its first-ever Section 3 Class D championship.
The Eagles, now 18-3 and ranked seventh in the state in Class D, are still in business.
After a triumphant fire department escort back into town Sunday afternoon, they’re set to take on Section 10 champion Harrisville this Saturday at 1 p.m. at SRC Arena in Syracuse in a state regional (quarterfinal) contest.
After a dominant first half, McGraw had to hold on in the second half. The Blue Devils, ranked 11th in the state, pulled to within 45-39 at the end of the third quarter and continued their surge in the fourth. They took what ended up being their only lead, 50-49, on a 3-pointer by senior guard Spencer Haviland with 1:46 left. Junior center Chase Curtis scored the Eagles’ first points in almost four minutes 14 seconds later to give his team the lead for good, 51-50.
After two Madison misses, McGraw junior forward Chris Pickert scored inside with 1:06 left, was fouled and hit a free throw before Haviland drained another trey with 57 seconds remaining for the final margin.
After a defensive stop by Madison, the Eagle defense forced the Blue Devils to the perimeter, where a pair of 3-pointers missed the mark before a foul was called on Madison in the scramble for the second rebound. The resulting free throw was off before a last-second three-quarter-court heave by Madison fell well short, setting off a wild celebration by McGraw players, coaches and a large throng of maroon-clad supporters.
“Defense was the key for us today,” Martins said, still damp from having bottles of water emptied on him by giddy players in the postgame locker room. “We knew their three top scorers, and put Chris on Sam Matteson, Maurice Peterson on Colton Stone and Dakota Stauber on Haviland, man-to-man for most of the game. At halftime, none of those players was Madison’s leading scorer, which made us happy. We played fantastic defense, with Chase and (senior guard) Kevin Shorts back to help on drives.”
The first half belonged to the Eagles, who were up 17-12 after one quarter and led by as many as 15 points, at 36-21, in the second before heading into halftime with a 36-24 lead, led by Peterson, a junior guard, with 11 points and Stauber, a senior forward, with 10. Senior forward Alex Cotter led the Blue Devils with 10 points, with senior forward Matteson, senior guard Stone and Haviland held to the other 14 points between them.
“At halftime we talked about how Madison was a good team, and that a 12-point lead on a team like that was nothing,” Martins said. “Some foul trouble in the second half hurt us, but the kids coming off the bench did a nice job. After they took the lead I was concerned that there was something we weren’t doing as well as we had been, but we’ve been in similar situations before. We just had to finish the game, which is what the kids did.”
“They out-hustled us in the first half and got the 50-50 balls,” said Madison coach Dan Mitchell, whose team came in having won five in a row against McGraw, including two-game sweeps the last two regular seasons. “We didn’t execute, push the tempo or work hard enough on defense, and they got most of the 50-50 balls. We did a better job all-around in the second half; we had one more rebound than them in the first half (23-22), but ended up with one more (50-39) for the game.
“After we took the lead we didn’t get back defensively like we should have and they ended up with a layup. After their last missed free throw we had a guy open — we’d set up a play — but again, didn’t execute. Hats off to McGraw; they had a good game plan and played a great game. I’m very proud of our guys. They played a great second half and left it all out on the floor.”
Stauber, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, was named Class D tournament MVP while Peterson, who led McGraw with 15 points along with three steals, was selected as a member of the all-tournament squad. Curtis finished with nine points. Haviland scored a game-high 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds for the Blue Devils, who got double-doubles from senior forward Matteson with 14 points and 15 rebounds and Cotter with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Also, Martins was named Class D Coach of the Year.
Haviland and Matteson also made the all-tournament team, which was rounded out by Lyme’s Damon Blaha and Oriskany’s Rich Phelps.
“We stopped them defensively and made them fire a lot of bad shots,” Stauber said with a smile as his teammates celebrated around him. “We knew they couldn’t guard all of us. I think they came out slow, thinking ‘We’ve beaten this team many times before; we’ve got this.’ We had unfinished business to take care of, and we did. That it was against Madison makes it even better.”
“I think they came in expecting an easy game,” Peterson said. “Our defensive strength was the key; it was strong, even when the offense wasn’t there. I couldn’t have done what I did without my team; we need all of us to do it. The seniors played like seniors. We wanted to get back here and play Madison again, and that’s what happened. We had unfinished business, and took care of business.”
“I had to get up in (Matteson’s) face and play him as tough as I could,” said Pickert, who had held Lyme’s leading scorer, Isaiah Wilson, in check in McGraw’s 65-57 semifinal win. “I didn’t score much (seven points), but my teammates took care of that while I played defense. We came out wanting to win so bad. We’ve been waiting to play Madison in this game all year; we knew they’d come in thinking they were going to stomp us. We just played as hard as we could.”
In Harrisville, McGraw will face a team on Saturday that comes in 21-3 and ranked eighth in the state. The Pirates beat Madison 52-42 in last season’s state quarterfinals.
“We’ll make calls and see what we can find out about them,” Martins said.
“Then we’ll start getting ready.”
Be sure to check our photo album from the game on Facebook!