TROY – It took a half for Santita Ebangwese to get her long arms wrapped around the most important game in her basketball career, but when she did the 6-foot-1 center didn’t let it go.
The Pittsford Sutherland junior scored 17 points, including the final four of the game, and had 12 rebounds and 3 blocks to lead the Knights to a 43-39 come-from-behind win over Maine-Endwell in Friday’s Class A tournament semifinals.
“Too much ‘Tita,” Knights coach Dan Judd said at Hudson Valley Community College.
M-E coach Sonny Spera agreed. “We did everything we could,” said the former Syracuse University guard (1981-85). “We had one, two bodies on her the whole game.”
Sutherland (23-1) trailed nearly the whole game. Bayley Axelrod gave the Knights a 3-0 lead in the first minute, but they led only one other time – 31-30 for 13 seconds late in the third quarter – before Ebangwese’s go-ahead basket, a left-handed hook, with 1:12 left to play.
The Knights (23-1) face Section III’s Jamesville-DeWitt (22-2), a 44-30 winner over Section XI’s Harborfields, in Saturday’s 7 p.m. championship back at HVCC. Sutherland hadn’t been back to the semis since Judd’s 2006 team won it all.
“I am so excited to play in another state final this year,” said Ebangwese, who helped the Knights win a state volleyball title last fall. “This is a great year for me for sports. I just can’t wait for (Saturday).”
Photos: Sutherland 43, Maine-Endwell 39
She made three pivotal plays in the final 90 seconds that helped her team overcome a season-high 28 turnovers (it averages only 11) and 33 percent shooting against last year’s state runners-up. In addition to the winning basket, she stole an entry pass on M-E’s next trip and then converted the clinching layup off a long inbound pass by Holly Turner.
“She’s big. She’s got great hands, finishes good. We just had to get (the ball) to her,” Judd said of Ebangwese. “That was the hardest part.”
Sutherland knew M-E’s pressure defense would be trouble, so that’s why Judd used seven defenders going against five players in practice this week, trying to simulate it. Traveling violations, tipped balls and loose passes all contributed to the 15 turnovers the Knights racked up in the first half. But after trailing 18-9 early, they were down just 24-21 at halftime and Ebangwese spent the final five minutes of the half on the bench with two fouls.
“To only be down three at half with all those turnovers and we weren’t shooting it good at all, it was a bit of a confidence boost for us,” Judd said. “We knew if we could just get it inside, weather the pressure, they’d have a hard time handling us.”
Ebangwese was at least two inches taller than anyone who played for M-E (18-3), which got 11 points from Julie Yacovoni. Sutherland’s top-scorer Liz Greendyke chipped in with 12, six below her average.
In the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 35 (Greendyke’s two free throws with 7:13 left), 37 (Axelrod’s two free throws with 5:01 left) and 39 (Abby Judd’s layup with 2:46 left). All the while, Ebangwese owned the defensive boards and was Sutherland’s fulcrum on offense.
“They were going to triple-team her, but she’s very strong,” Axelrod said.
A hook is hardly her go-to move, Ebangwese said, but it worked, unlike all those free throws she missed (seven of 10). Yacovoni missed a 3-point shot that could have put M-E ahead with eight seconds left.
Sutherland then faced full-court pressure. Judd chose Turner, a lacrosse standout headed to UMass, to fire the pass safely into the frontcourt for Ebangwese. She soared over her defender to grab it, then dribbled in for a layup with 3.5 seconds left.
“Generally you call those 50-50 balls but with ‘Tita they’re 90-10,” Dan Judd said.