Tonawanda News — North Tonawanda coach Ryan Mountain sat down in a chair in his office, the top button of his red dress shirt undone, and scanned the final stats, nodding approvingly as he mumbled a few words: “Woodard, 11 rebounds … Stone, four steals.”
He had reason to be pleased with his team’s performance. The Lumberjacks had, after all, just fended off a tough, frenetic, freaky-athletic Sweet Home Panthers team.
In the midst of the back-and-forth Class A-1 quarterfinal battle between the 4 and 5 seeds, Mountain was passionate, emotional as he roamed the sidelines. But now, sitting serenely, asked what he preached to his comrades during a full week of practice to prepare them for Sweet Home, he sounded more like a philosopher.
“To focus the mind on the present moment, accept reality, seek improvement daily, putting the team before all else,” Mountain said.
His squad won, 48-39, in the second round of the playoffs to advance to Buffalo State, where NT will play Williamsville South, which defeated Hutch Tech, 83-79, in overtime Friday.
North Tonawanda (13-6) junior forward Chris Woodard faced a tough task: competing in the paint against Sweet Home’s lengthy big men, who sometimes look like they’re playing on pogo sticks. Woodard was up to the challenge, amassing a dominant stat line of 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. He said his team was exceptionally prepared for the game, which it led from start to finish, because it studied film on Sweet Home.
“We knew they were going to out-jump us,” Woodard said. “Coach was telling me all week in practice, ‘You’ve got to put a body on everybody. Every time a shot goes up, you’ve got to put a body on someone.’”
Senior guard Joe Piotrowski, who will play at Medaille next year, had 15 points, three rebounds and four steals. His most important bucket came with 1:30 remaining and his team leading by just five, 40-35, as the Panthers were mounting a late-game charge. While the shot clock winded down, Piotrowski caught the ball off a baseline inbounds pass at the top of the key, shot faked, took one dribble and nailed a mid-range jumper that essentially sealed the game.
“Just believe, play as a team, and we can beat anybody,” Piotrowski said. “And that’s what we believe – we believe whoever it was, whether it was Sweet Home or West Seneca East, whoever came here, we can hang with them and we can beat them.”
The Jacks’ 2-3 zone, which has been their primary defense all season, stymied Sweet Home’s undersized guards at points in the game. NT also found a way to moderate the Panthers’ full-court pressure. Sweet Home entered the game averaging 59 points per contest and finished with 20 fewer.
“Their pressure stung us a little bit, but it really didn’t create points for them, so our preparation worked,” Mountain said.
NT junior point guard Nehemiah Stone had an even stat line of four points, four assists and four steals. Senior forward Mike Awad added six points, three assists and four rebounds – including perhaps the two most critical of the game, both offensive boards in the final minute after NT had missed free throws.
Sweet Home had its season end with a record of 11-9.
NT and Williamsville South will play at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Buffalo State.