State title dream ends for South Kortright girls

By John Bernhardt
Their roster read like a league all-star team. All five starters of Section IV’s Sherman Wildcats girls’ basketball team were seniors. Four of the starters have played varsity basketball every year of their high school careers. The fifth began her varsity career as a sophomore. Guard/forward Beth Gribble and six-foot forward Rachel Ottaway are both 1,000 point scorers averaging 13.5 points per game. The Wildcats are tournament tested winning three Section VI Class D titles in the last four years. And the Sherman team is guided by one of New York State’s most accomplished coaches, Mel Swanson. Swanson, in his 31st season this winter, will earn his 500th victory early in the season next year. All this pedigree made South Kortright a decided underdog in Saturday’s New York State Basketball Semifinals at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy. But, the Rams have been counted out before and battled to unpredicted heights. That track record had SK coach Josh Burroughs, his team, and the extended SK community hoping lightning would strike for the Rams one more time.
Not this time. The experience and talent of the Sherman five proved daunting as the Wildcats stormed past SK, 55-30, to reach the state finals on Sunday. Sherman fell in a heartbreaker, 39-36, to Section IX’s Coleman Catholic.
Statistically, the semi-final tilt seemed like a complete runaway for Sherman. The Wildcats out rebounded the normally rebound strong Rams, 34-16, caused 24 SK turnovers, and took 53 shots from the floor against only 37 for the Rams. Yet, through first half action, the Rams were very much in the game.
The teams traded baskets in the early going before Sherman surged in front at the close of the first quarter, 10-5. But, the picture was far from clear. Sherman’s two offensive stars, Gribble and Ottaway, were whistled with their second fouls of the game within 30 seconds of each other before the quarter break and forced to the sidelines. With time running out in the quarter, SK senior Mary Grant, downed a baseline jump shot and the Rams beat the horn down by only three, 10-7.
SK’s leading scoring threat, Renee Craft started the second frame where Grant left off. Craft finished a driving lay-up to the basket bringing the SK faithful to their feet, and narrowing the Wildcat advantage to one, 10-9. Sherman’s point guard Michelle Persons used a long-range bank shot to push her team’s lead back to three. But, moments later, Cassie McMullen answered by nailing a shoot from near the top of the key drawing the Rams back to within one, at 12-11.
Shortly after McMullen’s score, Swanson sent his two offensive stars back into the game, and the change paid dividends almost immediately. Pearson fired in a three-point goal from the right wing to start a nine-point run that would be the Rams’ undoing. Gribble turned a steal into a full court lay-up, then countered with a long three-point goal of her own, and the Wildcats had stretched their lead to 20-11.
The Rams didn’t win 21 games this year without showing some grit. SK fired back. Courtney Chambers buried a three-point goal from the top of the key, and Mary Grant followed with an inside score for SK. With 50 seconds to play in the half, the Rams trailed by only four, 20-16. But, seconds before the halftime horn, Ottaway pumped in another three-point bomb, to stretch the lead to 23-16 at the intermission.
No one could have predicted the Sherman explosion at the start of the second half. Years of playing experience and the relentless play of the seasoned seniors finally took a toll on SK. The Wildcat defense picked up a notch forcing several Rams’ turnovers and forcing SK to take rushed and hurried shots. Sherman ran off the first 17 points of the second half, almost all of them from around the hoop. From there the outcome was never in doubt.
Gribble finished with game-high scoring honors at 23 points. Ottaway added 16 for the Wildcats.
Mary Grant earned designation on the All-State team leading SK with 12 points. Grant converted six of seven shots from the floor for SK. Renee Craft reached double digits scoring 10 points for the Rams.
Although disappointing, the final game in no way diminishes the terrific season compiled by second-year coach Josh Burroughs and his Rams. South Kortright proved all the pundits wrong when they peaked at the right time and sliced through their post season foes, winning a Section IV title, a Regional Championship, and reaching New York State’s Class D Final Four.