AMHERST, Mass. -- In its quest to get back to the Western Massachusetts Division 3 title game, the Wahconah boys basketball team came up a little short.
But it will be long remembered by its coach, particularly its seniors.
“Overall, I’m really proud of the way my guys competed,” Dustin Belcher said after Tuesday’s 65-55 loss to top-seeded Sabis at Curry Hicks Cage. “Obviously, Sabis a very good team.
“My seniors, this is a great class of kids -- from the starters to guys who play roles for us. So my heart breaks for them today because I really feel like they emptied their tanks. And I wish we could have gotten to their desired destination.”
Sabis 6-foot-6 senior Aaron Williams was a giant road block on that road for Wahconah.
Williams scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to send the Bulldogs (18-4) to Saturday afternoon’s final against Naragansett, a 60-55 winner over Frontier earlier Tuesday evening.
Wahconah was led by juniors Kevin Huban (16 points) and Tom O’Connor (14 points, eight rebounds).
But senior Tom Burris had a big night on the glass, pulling down 13 carroms to go with his nine points, and classmate Tim Clayton scored nine. Jake Gai made a couple of big steals and had five boards before fouling out in the last two minutes, and Austin Roughley, one of those role players, made the most of his minutes with a couple of rebounds.
And No. 5 Wahconah as a group never backed down against the tournament favorites.
In fact, Wahconah led or was tied most of the first half after O’Connor’s 3-pointer made it 5-3 in the third minute of the game.
Wahconah led by as many as nine when Burris scored in transition to make it 19-10 midway through the second half, but Sabis rallied to tie it at 21-21 when Souleymane Diaby (17 points) hit the front end of a one-and-one with 1 minute, 41 seconds left until half-time.
Clatyon responded with a putback at the other end, and O’Connor scored in the post to help Wahconah take a 25-23 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter belonged to the Bulldogs, who built a 10-point lead late in the period, going on top 41-31 when Diaby scored in transition.
Wahconah (17-6) had an answer, going on a 14-6 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters and ended when Clayton hit a foul shot to make it a two-point game, 47-45, with 4:51 on the clock.
Sabis was able to rebuild its big lead by getting the ball to its bigs in the post. Williams scored nine points in the fourth quarter -- including five at the foul line after Wahconah got within two points.
“The free throw line, they lived there,” Belcher said. “The Wiliams kid shoots the ball well from the free throw line. That’s what makes him tough. You look at his numbers, and he gets his finishes, but he gets a ton of points at the free throw line.
“You can’t go in there and think you’re going to put him at the free throw line, and that’s the way to stop him. That wasn’t our game plan going in, and I thought we did a pretty good job executing. But, certainly for stretches, we didn’t.”
It was still a two-possession game with 3:11 on the clock when Clayton converted both ends of a one-and-one to make it 51-47, but Diaby hit a triple, and Ja’Quan Johnson scored to push the lead back to nine.
Wahconah never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“It’s more about the journey, and we talked about that [in the team room],” Belcher said. “It takes a few days, and this one might take longer than that to reflect back on it.
“But it’s been a great run. Seventeen wins is the most we’ve had in our program since 2003. It’s been a long time, and they have a lot to be proud of.”