By Frank Rizzo
MONTICELLO Winning is nice, of course, but winning against the best boys basketball team in Section IX as Monticello did Monday night against Kingston makes for a special experience that those watching and playing will not soon forget.
The host Panthers scored the first 15 points and were never headed as they survived a Tiger comeback and eked out a 69-62 non-league victory.
Monticello coach Dick ONeill has many to savor among his 295 career wins, and admitted that this had to rank with the sweetest.
As noted, the hosts came out strong, scoring the first 15 points and shutting out the Tigers until the four- minute mark, when Jeremy King put back a miss, drew a foul, and completed the three-point play.
A three-pointer by pesky freshman Artavius Fischer as the halftime buzzer sounded sliced into the Monties lead, putting the hosts up 37-24 at the half.
We played as well as we can play in the first half, said ONeill. We had good passes, make good decisions, and did a lot of good things in transition.
The Monties shot 17-for-23 from the field in the half (74 percent) and even ONeill was led to declare, Those were a couple of spectacular alley oops.
His center, John DeGroat, was on the receiving end of perfectly lofted passes from Ricky Villegas and Chris Robinson that he grabbed above the rim and stuffed, to the delight of the Monticello fans.
They came out with more energy and enthusiasm. They wanted it more, said Kingston coach Ron Kelder. You cant dig yourself a grave like we did.
When the teams lined up for the tipoff, it was obvious that Monticello had a height disadvantage except for DeGroat at every position.
Therefore, ONeill decided to forego his usual man defense for a 1-3-1 zone that his longtime colleague and friend Kelder conceded was effective.
His charges followed ONeills usual advice to start strong in the opening minutes of the second half, and grabbed the biggest lead of the night at the 6:10 mark, when Sammie McGinnis sank a three-pointer to make it 44-27.
Four minutes later Kingstons Kevin Simmons sailed through the paint for two, bringing his team within 46-43.
Monticellos spirited response came from sub Ed Motl, who braved his way along the sideline and, in the face of superior height, banked one home and drew a foul. He made the free throw and gave the Panthers breathing space, 49-43.
Fischers second three-pointer of the night put the Tigers within reach again but Robinson ended the stanza with two straight penetrating drives, giving Monticello a 53-46 edge at quarters end.
ONeill might have reflected back to last years meeting, up in Kingston, when the Monties led by six going going into the final quarter but wound up losing.
Monday night, the lead fluctuated between five and seven points for most of the fourth.
With just over a minute left Villegas caused disbelief when he attempted a three-pointer with plenty of time still on the shot clock.
The feeling came over me that I could make it, Villegas said afterward. Im young. I wanted to be the gamesaver. I was immature at that moment.
With 59 second left Fischer victimized Monticello again from beyond the arc, making it 63-59.
At the Monticello end Robinson drew a foul and sank both ends of the one-and-one to up the lead back to six.
DeGroat and Phil Stewart trapped Fischer along the sideline and DeGroat stripped the ball away and flipped it to Stewart, who was immediately fouled by Fischer.
With 30 seconds left Stewart stepped to the line and hit the front end to add another point to the advantage.
But soph point guard Villegas was betrayed by his youth again when he went for the block and only managed to foul Keith Simmons on a three-point attempt.
Simmons made all three foul shots with 24 seconds showing and Monticellos lead was now a vulnerable 66-62.
Villegas drew a foul and made one of two with 21 ticks remaining.
At the Kingston end he gathered a miss by Fischer and fed a streaking DeGroat, whose stuff effectively sealed the win and sparked a huge roar from the hometown crowd.
When the final buzzer sounded the celebration was more befitting a championship game victory, and even ONeill bounded about like a younger man, and gave his assistant, Jed Bobier, a bear hug.
Villegas spoke for his teammates when he commented, This is the best feeling Ive ever had [after] a game. I cant express myself, I cant stop smiling. This was a big booster for us.
Kingston (92) had been riding a nine-game winning streak and had gotten good press of late.
I think we got full of ourselves, Kelder commented of his team, which lost in the Class A final a year ago.
Kingston, noted ONeill, has a lot of talent and a confident attitude. My opinion hasnt changed. I still think theyre the best team in the section.
ONeill also praised his teams defense, noting that giving up just 62 points to Kingston was an achievement.
This was a complete team effort, ONeill said.
Notes: DeGroat led Monticello with 24 points, including eight each in the first and fourth quarters. He also added 11 rebounds
Robinson had 18 points and four assists
McGinnis finished with 13 points (including three three-pointers) and seven rebounds
Villegas contributed five assists and four steals
Monticello had a 32-23 rebounding edge, but Kingston had 15 offensive rebounds
Monticello shot 30/48 overall (62.5 percent)
Keith Simmons and David Simmons had 15 each and Fischer added 14 to lead Kingston.