BINGHAMTON — If Saturday’s Class C state semifinal was an offensive exhibition for Cooperstown, Sunday’s state title game was a return to defensive norms.
Jack Lambert and John Kennedy combined for 40 points as the Hawkeyes backed up Saturday’s 108-98 semifinal win with a gritty 71-61 decision over Middle Early College to win Cooperstown’s first boys basketball state title Sunday at Floyd L. Maines Arena.
“It’s been an incredible ride this whole tournament, and we capped it off with a great team win in both games,” Tournament MVP Jack Lambert said. “We played hard, we played together, and just had so much fun this whole experience.”
“Defense, defense, defense. That’s what we rely on,” Cooperstown coach John Lambert said. “The ball’s not always gonna go in. You’re gonna get hit, you’re gonna get chipped. You have to grind it out, and it was a classic game today.”
After finishing 44 minutes of basketball just 23 hours prior, the Hawkeyes returned with renewed defensive intensity in the first quarter Sunday.
A scrappy, if not clean, first five minutes saw the teams tied at nine. But the Cooperstown offense found its rhythm and MEC could not connect from outside in a 9-0 Hawkeye run to end the first.
Lambert, who scored 18 points in Saturday’s first quarter, was held to six in the first, but the last three came on a buzzer-beating step-back 3-pointer to give Cooperstown a 19-9 lead after one.
“Whatever a team throws at us, we can play with them,” he said. “Whether it’s fast-paced, slow-paced, gritty or a grind.”
Kennedy scored six points early in the second to extend the lead to 12 at 25-13, but the Kats used four points from Traemelle Steven-Richardson in a 7-2 run to make the deficit seven.
However, Cooperstown got five points from Ryan Lansing, in a 7-2 run of its own for a 34-22 lead at halftime.
The 22 points were less than the 24 Cooperstown allowed Greenport in the first quarter of Saturday’s semifinal. At the half, MEC was 10-for-23 from the field, but 1-for-9 from beyond the arc.
“Last night, at least for us, the defense wasn’t that great,” Lifgren said. “Today it was hard defense on both ends. There were times when our guards had trouble getting the ball up, but there were times where we got a lot of really good stops. That’s the main reason we won today.”
MEC coach James Kane said the Hawkeyes defend changed his team's offense.
“If we get slowed down in the halfcourt, we can struggle, and they did a great job getting back in transition and packing it in,” he said. “We strive on making layups and then kicking it out. We were forced into some shots we don’t normally take and it worked in their favor.”
Lambert scored nine in the third quarter as Cooperstown extended the deficit to 15 with a 10-2 run at the end of the quarter. The trio of senior captains in Calvin Sandler, Lifgren and Lambert all scored in the run, along with a 3-pointer from Lansing to give the Hawkeyes their biggest lead.
Cooperstown played just six players through three quarters after 11 players saw the floor Saturday. Four senior starters in Sandler, Lifgren, Lambert and Jesse Furnari were joined by Lansing, a junior, with Kennedy the only player off the bench for the first 24 minutes.
“We’ve been together since fourth grade,” Lambert said. “My dad has been coaching us forever. To come out here and win this together is just amazing.”
As with Saturday, Sandler was the calming influence as the Hawkeyes took care of the ball just enough against an MEC team that aggressively pressured the ball and trapped following Cooperstown ball screens.
“For the whole season, coach has been trying to get me confident and get me into that role,” Sandler said. “These last few games I’ve just been trying to take care of the ball and get it to Jack and everybody else.”
The Hawkeyes committed 16 turnovers, eight in each half, but caused 18 by MEC.
“Calvin and Ryan, they did a great job handling that pressure,” Jack Lambert said. “Once you get through the initial line of defense we could find the other guys. Noah and John just had to finish.”
MEC made its final run early in the fourth, scoring the first six points of the fourth and making the deficit nine. But Lambert hit a 3-pointer to start a 10-4 run, finished by a transition putback from Kennedy, for a 15-point deficit that MEC did not threaten.
Lambert finished with 23 points, totaling 76 on the weekend after scoring a final four-record 53 on Saturday. He went 5-for-8 from beyond the arc and had six assists with one turnover.
“As the coach you have to separate your son from the player and make sure the player is meshing with everybody else and that he is part of the group,” John Lambert said “I’m happy, he’s talented and that’s great, but he is a better person and leader and that’s what makes him a phenomenal player.”
Kennedy backed up his 25-point, 22-rebound performance on Saturday with 17 points and a game-high 13 rebounds to complete his breakout weekend. He earned all-tournament honors.
“Everybody hit big shots. John, Calvin, Ryan and Noah, they all had big games,” Jack Lambert said. “We wouldn’t have won without that teamwork.”
Lansing totaled 10 points and three assists while Sandler finished with eight points and seven assists. Furnari totaled five points, the first five of the game for Cooperstown, and Noah Lifgren totaled four with six rebounds. Spencer Lewis went 4-for-4 from the line in the final minute to also score four.
“It’s a great feeling knowing there are other guys. I think I had four points tonight,” Lifgren said. “But knowing there were five other guys who are able to score and play great defense really helped us win.”
The state title is the first for the Cooperstown boys basketball program. The Hawkeyes (25-2) last reached the final in 2003, and lost in the regional final (state quarterfinal) in 2012.
“It’s really about getting this state championship for these children,” John Lambert said. “They have thought about it for years and here it is.”
“It’s just great. Our coaches, the athletic director, everybody has been really supportive of us,” Sandler said. “I can’t ask for anything better.”
Cooperstown 71, MEC 61
Cooperstown …… 19 15 16 21 - 71
Middle Early College …… 9 13 13 26 - 61
Cooperstown (25-2): Ryan Burns 0 0-0 0, Jesse Furnari 2 0-0 5, John Kennedy 5 7-10 17, Jack Lambert 9 0-1 23, Ryan Lansing 4 0-2 10, Spencer Lewis 0 4-4 4, Noah Lifgren 2 0-0 4, Kyle Meyer 0 0-0 0, Calvin Sandler 1 6-8 8, Kyle Santello 0 0-0 0, Ben Tafuro 0 0-0 0. TOTALS 23 17-25 71.
MEC: Keith Brown 4 0-0 8, Jamond Jones 2 0-0 5, Keyunte Jones 2 0-0 6, Malik Meadows 0 0-0 0, Ja’kari Nettles 8 3-5 19, Devonte Prince 5 2-2 14, Anthony Smith 0 0-0 0, Traemelle Stevens-Richardson 3 3-6 9, Jaheim Virgil 0 0-0 0. TOTALS 24 8-13 61.
Three-point field goals: C 8 (Lambert 5, Lansing 2, Furnari); MEC 5 (K. Jones 2, Prince 2, J. Jones).