By Phil Terrigno
TROY — Waving their pom poms and chanting, a troupe of cheerleaders joined raucous fans in welcoming Oneonta onto the floor at Hudson Valley Community College.
Irvington entered on a quieter note, preceded only by its three consecutive state titles and the two Division 1 players that have led it on an outstanding campaign.
The latter was far more valuable in the Class B state semifinals as Irvington (22-2) clung to a 55-53 win and withstood 26 points from Oneonta’s (20-2) Mariah Ruff, a strong ball-handler that goaded Marist-bound Brittni Lai into fouling out in the fourth quarter.
“To have our star point guard on the bench, once we pulled that one out I went over to (Brittni Lai) and said ‘You can never do that to us again,” Lehigh-bound Lexi Martins said. “Playing in tough games is fun but it’s hard. Brittni really leads our team in so many ways and to not have her on the floor for the last three minutes of the game was really difficult.”
A junior point guard that has garnered recruiting attention from St. Bonaventure and Binghamton, Ruff helped the Yellowjackets erase a 12-point third quarter deficit and tie the game at 50 with 1:40 remaining in regulation.
Irvington made four free throws before Ruff drilled a 3-pointer with 22.5 seconds left.
Martins responded with another free throw, putting Irvington up by two, and Oneonta missed its two final shot attempts as the clock expired.
“(Oneonta) had confidence, which is what you need to play here,” Lai said. “They started hitting all of their shots and they really knew how to get through our defense. Once that started, they built momentum. Luckily, we won.”
Lai led Irvington with 20 points and Martins added 18 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks.
Oneonta led 12-5 midway though the first quarter before a Lai 3-pointer ignited a 7-0 run and Irvington continued to roll, leading 29-16 at halftime.
Irvington’s last loss came to Ossining on Feb. 11 and the Bulldogs have won their five contests since by an average of 34.6 points.
“I think we got a little bit tight,” Irvington coach Gina Maher said. “Rather than play to win, we were playing not to lose. That hurt us. And then in the end, we did some smart things.”
Irvington topped Oneonta in the 2010 state final at the start of its current run.
“To beat a team like Oneonta is huge,” Maher said. “They are as good as any of the other Class B teams that I have seen.”
Photos courtesy of John Meore/LoHud.com
Here was the scene from an empty HVCC this morning: