ALBANY — Only a questionable call during a fight for the ball in the closing seconds could halt KIPP NYC’s 23-point comeback against Olean. What was a shocking turn of event to everyone else in the Times Union Center was nothing new to KIPP coach Craighton Barry.
Although this was the first time he was the coach and not the referee in a situation of this magnitude.
Prior to taking over as KIPP coach this season, Barry was a longtime PSAL official, it allowed him to remain remarkably composed while others screamed and yelled after his team’s heartbreaking 66-65 in the state Federation Class B boys’ basketball semifinals at the Times Union Center on March 19.
“I’ve been in that position on the other side as a referee, so I understand some of the things that occur,” he said. “Sometimes people anticipate…I’m sure he [the referee] did the best he could do.”
Despite Barry’s composure postgame, his Bulldog players saw a fierce comeback culminating with the Bulldogs pulling to within four in the final minute.
A 3-pointer from Xavier Nunez (10 points) brought KIPP to within one in the closing seconds, and a steal and bucket from Christian Sturdivant (13 points) on the ensuing Olean inbound completed the unbelievable comeback. KIPP led 65-64 with 12 seconds left.
However on the game’s final possession, Olean’s Jacob Cavana grabbed his own rebound under the basket after a miss. On the ensuing tie up, a foul was called on KIPP’s Albert Wilson to send Cavana to the line with 0.6 seconds remaining.
Cavana knocked down both free throws to give Olean the lead, and a heave at the buzzer went unanswered for KIPP, leaving the Bulldogs and their fans in attendance stunned in disbelief after their 66-65 loss.
The Bulldog seniors knew it was now or never for their high school careers as KIPP trailed by 23 with 6:26 left to play. Ben Eckstrom and Elijah Ramadham each scored 21 points for Olean.
KIPP was being outscored 24-6 in the second half, and it looked as if the magical season was quickly coming to a close.
“My senior year was on the line,” said Jason Valera, who had a team-high 22 points. “So we all got together and were like, ‘are we going to do it or are we going to just fall out?’ We just came back, we fought hard.”
The comeback began, fueled by a full-court press that created 10 second-half turnovers. The Bulldogs had the lead down to 13 with 4:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. By the two-minute mark the Olean lead was just seven, 59-52, and a 3-pointer from Valera made it 61-55 with 1:29 left.
KIPP still trailed 64-60 with just 24 seconds left, but from there, Nunez’s trey and Sturdivant’s basket gave the Bulldogs their first lead since early in the second quarter with 12 seconds remaining.
The heartbreaking loss was certainly a sour ending to the high school careers of the 10 KIPP graduating seniors, however it will not take away from the exceptional final season.
KIPP finished league play undefeated at 21-0, and 27-3 overall and took home the Public School Athletic League Class B championship after a 95-82 win over Jane Addams on March 13.
“Coaching this group, a whole bunch of seniors, it was incredible,” Barry said. “These young men trusted me from day one. They worked hard in the gym. They worked hard everyday in the classroom. They had the utmost respect…and it was just a pleasure…I will never forget them.”
It was just about the best first season on the sidelines that Barry could have asked for, minus the ending in Albany. But graduating senior Jae Len Hartsfield (16 points) was confident that his team would return upstate next year without him.
“We set a good example for the bench for next year,” he said. “We will be back here next year.”