WHITE PLAINS – All year, Woodlands had lived with the pressure of being an overwhelming favorite. It was so much different than a year ago when the Falcons’ victories were never preordained.
The different climate made this year’s postseason another animal. The pressure had peaked when they found themselves deep into Saturday night’s championship clinging tenuously to the lead.
“We all got nervous, especially coach,” senior Pierre Lys said, referencing coach Bob Murphy. “He yells at us all the time, but it was a different yell today.”
Woodlands earned its release in the final minutes, pulling away from stubborn Briarcliff to win the Class B championship 56-50 at the County Center. The Falcons (19-3) repeated, just as expected, although not without needing to work for it.
“It was definitely harder being a frontrunner,” said senior Jamil Gambari, who repeated as tournament MVP. “It was hard to live up to it and we probably put pressure on ourselves to win.”
Briarcliff (17-5) did plenty to apply it. Junior big man Sean Crowley took advantage of Woodlands’ size deficiency to keep the Bears within range. Then, with less than seven minutes remaining, senior Alquan Phillip then sank a 3-pointer that left them down just 43-40.
If the Falcons were rattled, they didn’t show it. Senior Ross Joseph answered with a 3, and Gambari quickly added another. Just like that, they had a nine-point cushion to play with over the closing minutes.
“It was already tough in general, but when they hit their shots to go up nine, that put a big dent into what we were trying to do,” Briarcliff coach Cody Moffett said.
Crowley had a team-high 15 points and six rebounds and Phillip added 13 points and 10 boards.
Gambari poured in 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Lys finished with 13 points, four rebounds, five assists and five steals, and Joseph added nine points and six rebounds.
“That was difficult,” said Murphy, whose teams have won three titles in six years. “I would’ve felt so bad if my kids didn’t pull this out.”
Woodlands advanced to the Class B state regional semifinals at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 at Purchase College against the Section 9 champ.
“It’s definitely good to get out of Section 1,” Gambari said. “All the teams were gunning for us and we made it. I’m grateful for that. Moving on, it’s more neutral. Nobody’s really saying we want to beat Woodlands. They’ll just want to beat us when we get there.”