JOHNSTOWN - Coach Phil Schoff described the Canajoharie Cougars as battle-tested.
Tuesday, that toughness would benefit the Cougars in their Western Athletic Conference championship semifinal game against Schoharie.
After falling behind 23-7 in the first quarter, the Indians used their long-range shooting capability to cut the lead to five heading into the fourth quarter.
Canajoharie’s Josh Gonzalez (44) reaches to grab a rebound away from Schoharie’s Sean Hausman (12) and Chris O’Neil (11) during Tuesday’s Western Athletic Conference Cup game against Schoharie at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in?Johnstown.
Fort Plain’s Chris Hanifin (14) puts up a shot after recoving a loose ball from a scramble during Tuesday’s Western Athletic Conference Cup game against Mekeel Christian Academy at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. (The Leader-Herald/James A. Ellis)
However, the Cougars did not panic; instead, they turned up the intensity to pull away to a 54-47 victory Tuesday at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.
"Two possession ball games late are not foreign to us," Schoff said. "It was not a fear of mine. They made a couple of real difficult shots and we were still allowing them the long threes. The good thing is that we have been battle-tested so much that when a team makes a run, it doesn't faze us. I think the second quarter attests to that."
With the victory, the North Division champion Cougars (15-2) advance to Friday's WAC Cup title game where they will play South Division champ Mekeel Christian Academy at 7:30 p.m. at FMCC.
The Lions advanced to the title game with a solid 77-33 victory over North runner-up Fort Plain.
Led by 6-foot-5 sophomore Josh Gonzalez's 12-point first-quarter performance, Canajoharie sprinted out to a 21-4 lead before Schoharie's James Sackett hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put the score at 21-7.
The Indians built on Sackett's shot to begin their comeback bid.
Sackett and Tanner Stone found their spot behind the arc in the second period, and the Indians stepped up their defensive pressure on Canajoharie as they outscored the Cougars 12-3 in the period to trim the lead to seven, 26-19 at the break.
"The difference was our transition," Schoff said. "We pushed the ball like crazy in the first quarter and that is how we play we are a fast-break team. We knew with the bigger court it was going to be more spread out. Our press hurt them and put them back on their heels a little bit [in the first quarter]. I remember telling the guys with about a minute left in the first quarter that we had a decent lead right now, but I did not want them to be content. But they got content and we had just three points the second quarter."
After being shut out in the second quarter, Gonzalez brought his game back to the court in the third period, connecting for eight of the Cougars' nine third quarter points.
However, the Cougars again had their lead shrunk by Sackett as he hit a second buzzer-beating 3-pointer to trim Canajoharie's lead from eight, 35-27, to five heading into the final eight minutes of play.
Gonzalez remained a force in the paint in the final frame, grabbing key rebounds on both ends of the court.
While the Indians continued to find long-range success, the Cougars came through at the free-throw line in the closing minutes, converting on 7-of-12 attempts down to stretch to secure the 54-47 win.
"That was the best game shooting I've ever had in my life," Gonzalez said. "I went in thinking it could be a double-double, but I wasn't expecting a 20-plus game. Hey, we got the win, and that's all I have to say."
Gonzalez finished with a career-high 27 points, 20 rebounds and a block.
"He has a knack for the game," Schoff said. "You can't coach that. You can tell his mind was all geared for finding where the ball was going to land and he got there."
Dillan Veeder added 13 points, six assists and four steals, while Karl Gustafson added 11.
Sackett finished with five 3-pointers en route to his team-high 17 points, while Tanner Stone and Evan Ottman chipped in with nine points apiece.
Due to last Friday's postponement of the opening round games, Canajoharie and Mekeel Christian will battle for the title after the sectional pairings are announced.
"Battling through the season is tough, but it's preparing us for sectionals," Veeder said. "We're going to be ready."
"Sectionals are, of course, more important, but the crossover games, the championship is pretty big," Veeder said. "That's just a motivation thing. We set that as one of our goals, and it's something we look forward to."
Mekeel Christian had little trouble handling the Hilltoppers in the second semifinal game at FMCC.
The Lions opened the game with baskets from Caleb Stewart, Courtney Penson and Herbie Sexton all coming from behind the 3-point arc, while Joe Ray and Jake Sardina answered with baskets for the Hilltoppers to put the score at 9-4.
Mekeel Christian went on an 11-2 period ending run to open a commanding 20-6 lead.
The Lions continued to connect from long distance, with Stewart, Mano Senthil and Spencer Bath hitting 3-pointers to help extend Mekeel's advantage to 35-11 at the break.
Mekeel Christian, which connected for 13 3-pointers in the game, was led by Stewart's 27-point performance, while Sexton added 12 and Bath 11 points to the Lions' scoring.
Sardina led the Hilltoppers with seven points while Chris Hanifin and Ray finished with five apiece.
WAC Cup Semifinals
Canajoharie 54, Schoharie 47
Canajoharie23 3 9 19 - 54
Schoharie7 12 11 17 - 47
Veeder 4-4-13, Gonzalez 13-1-27, Gustafson 3-4-11, Shannon 1-0-2, Bowerman 0-1-1. Totals; 21-10-54.
Keyser 1-0-2, Brown 2-3-7, Ottman 4-1-9, O'Neil 1-1-3, Stone 3-0-9, Sackett 6-0-17. Totals: 17-5-47.
3-point goals: Canajoharie 2 (Veeder, Gustafson); Schoharie 8 (Sackett 5, Stone 3).
Mekeel Christian Academy 77, Fort Plain 33
Fort Plain6 5 16 6 - 33
Mekeel Christian20 15 26 16 - 77
Douglas 1-2-4, Florian 2-0-4, Hanifin 2-1-5, Orologio 0-2-2, Ray 2-0-5, Sardina 3-0-7, Sweet 1-2-4, Wolfe 1-0-2. Totals: 12-7-33.
Mekeel Christian Academy
Alteri 2-0-4, Bath 4-0-11, Kelly 0-1-1, Miller 1-0-2, Mulvey 1-0-3, Penson 3-0-7, Senthil 4-0-10, Sexton 4-2-12, Stewart 10-3-27. Totals: 29-6-77.
3-point goals: Fort Plain 2 (Ray, Sweet); Mekeel Christian 13 (Stewart 4, Bath 3, Sexton 2, Senthil 2, Penson, Mulvey).