YONKERS – There have been plenty of doubters when it comes to the viability of Saunders basketball in the past few years, but the Blue Devils continue to defy the odds.
They hadn’t won a playoff game since 1998, but they checked that goal off of the list last Thursday with a win against White Plains. No one seems to know when the last time that Saunders made the semifinals — coach Anthony Nicodemo said, “It had to be at least the 1950s” — but the ticket to the County Center was punched on Wednesday with a 73-59 win over Horace Greeley in the Class AA quarterfinals.
The challenge will be even greater next Friday when the third-seeded Blue Devils play defending champ and perennial power Mount Vernon, but they’re taking it head on.
“I’m very excited,” junior guard Derrick Felder said with a wide smile. “We have a chance to see what we can do — what we’re really about.”
After Saunders fell victim to a sluggish start against White Plains in the first round, it was imperative not to let the same thing happen against No. 6 Greeley.
“You always want to come out harder than you did in the last game,” senior forward Dyheim McMillan said. “We came out slow last game, but this time we came out and hit them with the first shot.”
Felder led the charge with a game-high 27 points, but the Blue Devils really separated themselves with their ability to force turnovers and score in transition. Their high-pressure defense led to 19 turnovers for the Quakers.
“We press you for 32 minutes, and eventually, we’ll wear you down,” Nicodemo said. “Forcing those turnovers — and then scoring off of them — is the big difference. Against White Plains, we forced turnovers, but we didn’t score. We scored off of our turnovers today, which was one of our keys. I think that dictated the entire game.”
Of Greeley’s 59 points, 51 came from the duo of Cameron Ciero (26) and Jeff Merchant (25). Saunders was more effective spreading the ball around, with 15 points from McMillan, 10 from Anthony Miller and nine from Will Sullivan. But when the Blue Devils needed a big shot, Felder was their man.
“(Ciero and Merchant) are very good players, and they showed it today,” said Felder, who also added nine rebounds and four assists. “When they were getting back (in the game), I said to myself, ‘I don’t want my dream season to end like this.’ I had to step up and do what I needed to do.”