Dream hoop season ends for Blue Devils

By John Bernhardt
It was fitting that Saturday’s Section IV boys’ basketball quarterfinal game in Margaretville was an old-fashioned, nail-biting thriller. The Margaretville basketball faithful had waited a full decade between Section IV playoff appearances by an MCS team on their home floor. Legions of Blue Devils fans packed the Margaretville gymnasium to cheer on their guys. In the end, it was not quite enough as visiting Marathon eked out a 55-49 decision to advance to Wednesday’s semifinals.

The two teams traded baskets for almost the entire contest with seven lead changes and only two points separating the contestants with under two minutes to play. But, try as they might, the Blue Devils couldn’t find an answer to the outstanding play of Marathon center Jeff Contri.

Contri was everywhere, unleashing strong inside moves around the basket and a lethal mid-range jump shot. He scored 23 points to lead the Olympian offense. Yet, Contri did much more; rebounding the ball aggressively on both ends of the court and extending high in the air to alter Margaretville shots from inside the lane.

As he did at SUNY Delhi in the Delaware League championship game, Cooper Reither got the Blue Devils on the scoreboard by canning a three-point goal. Contri hit one of two foul shots for Marathon before Reither found senior Ryan Sanford near the basket. Sanford was fouled and hit both charity shots, pushing the MCS advantage to, 5-1.

But, Blue Devils’ nerves were frayed in the game’s early going. Margaretville struggled to advance the ball against Marathon’s relentless full court pressure, turning it over eight times in the opening period and spearheading a 12-point Olympian scoring run.

A three-point goal by Marathon point-guard Zach Brandstadt fueled the offensive spurt, with Contri following with three consecutive scores, two off needle-threading passes from Kody Barry. When Mitch Hull went to the foul line for two foul shots to stop the Marathon onslaught, a four-point Blue Devil lead had been transformed into a 13-5 Olympian advantage.

Trailing 14-7 after one period, the Blue Devils settled and stormed back. Junior guard Kyle Short found Hull at the end of a high lob inbound pass to open the second period. Hull scored and was fouled and his free throw was good. After a Blue Devils’ defensive stop, Hull’s offensive rebound and put-back narrowed Marathon’s advantage to 14-12.

The teams traded four baskets with Ryan Sanford using a full-court Kyle Short pass to finish with a layup. The Sanford basket, and one-of-two foul shots, drew Margaretville within a point at 18-17. Short buried a three-point set shot from the left wing and the Blue Devils were back on top, 20-18.
Contri knotted the score with a baseline jumper before a Matt VanValkenburg three-pointer gave Margaretville a 23-20 lead. Four straight Marathon foul shots erased the Blue Devils’ margin, thrusting the Olympians back in the lead.

The lead would swing back and forth four more times as the half closed, a Sanford put-back and a VanValkenburg drive through the lane temporarily putting the Blue Devils in front. A Contri-to-Lincoln pass and bank shot from the block ended the half with Marathon nursing a 33-31 advantage.
Marathon returned for the second half with a defensive change. The Olympians locked on a tight man-to-man defense that proved problematic for the home team and slowed the game to a grind.

The Blue Devils would only score three times in the period; a Reither three-point goal, a snappy give-and-go basket from VanValkenburg to Short and back to VanValkenburg for a layup and then Sean Gauntt’s inside score off a Reither pass.

But, a steely Blue Devils’ defense kept the home team in the game. When Marathon’s Tyler Hoellerer finished an acrobatic layup at the end of the Blue Devils’ press seconds before the third period horn, the Olympians led, 44-38.

Sometimes the shots that don’t fall are as critical as those that do. That was the case when, with his team trailing 46-41 and just four minutes to play, Kyle Short’s long three-point shot from the right wing seemed destined to swish the nets. Short’s attempt rimmed in and out as the Blue Devil faithful groaned. Marathon’s Dan Lincoln used a baseline drive to boost the Olympian’s lead to seven, before the Blue Devils mounted their final rally.

Hull scored on a drive from the right wing, Sanford dropped in one of two foul shots, and Short picked Brandstadt’s pocket, drove the basket and was fouled. The Margaretville guard downed both free shots and, with 1:36 to play, the Marathon lead was only two, 48-46.

A brilliant Kody Barry defensive play may have saved the game for Marathon. A jump ball gave the Blue Devils the ball under the Olympians’ basket. Margaretville attempted a long homerun pass, a play that has paid dividends at critical junctions of several games this season. Reither received the pass on the move and behind the last Marathon defender. Barry raced from behind, then streaked in front of the Blue Devils’ guard causing a slight hesitation just as the Margaretville guard was gathering to lift for the layup. The defensive gambit stopped the scoring effort with Marathon claiming the ball.

Contri magnified the damage by driving hard to the basket with just over a minute to play. His basket and foul shot extended the Olympians’ lead to 51-46.
Trailing 53-46, a Short three-pointer would draw Margaretville within four points but too little time remained to make up the difference.

Ryan Sanford netted 13, Mitch Hull 12 and Kyle Short 11 to pace the Blue Devils.
Coach Jeremey Marks’ Blue Devils finished a record-breaking season at 17-3, Delaware League champions for the first time in 18 years. The game marked the final appearance of seniors Mitch Hull, Ryan Sanford and Sean Gauntt.