By Rob Potter
MONTICELLO March Madness began a few days early this year.
Host Monticello had to fight off a determined James I. ONeill team Tuesday night in a Section IX Class B Quarterfinal.
Monticello (19-2), the number one seed in the Class B tournament, defeated eighth-seeded James I. ONeill (12-10) by a final score of 70-62.
For most of the contest, however, it looked as though the Raiders might pull a big upset and knock off the OCIAA Division III champion Panthers.
The win wasnt assured for Monticello until the final minute of the game. With 40 seconds remaining on the clock, senior forward John DeGroat made a pair of free throws to give the Panthers a 67-59 lead.
But ONeills Chris Donaldson responded with a three-pointer 11 seconds later to cut the Monticello lead back down to five points.
In the final half-minute, ONeill was forced to foul in an attempt to save time and regain possession of the basketball. Monticello guard Rick Villegas swished a pair of free throws with 24 seconds left to give the Panthers a 69-62 lead.
Following an errant three-point attempt by the Raiders, Geraldo Fernandez made one of two foul shots to give Monticello an eight point lead with just eight seconds left in the contest.
They played really well tonight, Monticello Coach Dick ONeill said of the Raiders. They shot phenomenally from the field.
The veteran coach noted that James I. ONeill converted 26 of 41 shots in the game and went seven-for-13 from beyond the three-point arc.
But he also noted that the Panthers had a big advantage at the foul line. Monticello was 17-for-23 at the charity stripe, while James I. O Neill converted just three-of-nine at the line.
That was the difference, Dick ONeill said. They had to foul at the end of the game, they did what they had to do. And we made those free throws.
DeGroat bested the Raiders shooting percentage by himself, making 11 of 12 shots. Many of his game-high 26 points came from offensive rebounds or dunks.
DeGroat also grabbed 16 rebounds in the contest. Villegas scored 20 points for the Panthers and Fernandez finished the night with eight points and eight rebounds.
James I. ONeill had a very balanced scoring attack, as Martin Walker and Chris Donaldson each scored a team-high 15 points and Kyle Harris had 14 points.
Im so proud of the way my kids played, James I. ONeill Coach Deb Crowe said. They played hard every minute and fought the whole way.
Crowe added that she thought a key to the contest was early in the third quarter when Monticello went on a 6-0 run to erase a 35-31 lead that the Raiders held at halftime.
That run really helped them and it didnt bode well for us, she said. I wish Dick (ONeill) and his team the best of luck for the rest of the tournament.
Although the victory was closer than many might have expected, the Panthers will still take it.
At this time of the year, the name of the game is to win and advance, ONeill said.