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Benton, Hawks end jinx against Nichols in Class B semifinals

Nasir Benton’s sophomore season with the Cardinal O’Hara boys’ basketball team ended with a loss to Nichols in the Manhattan Cup semifinals. So did his junior season.

Benton and his Hawks again met the nemesis Vikings again in the semis on Saturday night and heading into the halftime locker room, it looked like Benton might be facing déjà vu all over again.

Only O’Hara’s lone senior refused to let that happen.

Benton dominated in a game-changing second-half surge that propelled the Hawks to a 54-46 win over the Vikings in the first Manhattan Cup Class B semifinal on Saturday night at Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center.

“We got into the locker room, we talked about how we had to play our game,” Benton said. “I got 16 minutes, this might be my last game. I can’t lose to Nichols three years straight. It’s impossible, I can’t do it again.”

It actually looked very possible early in the third quarter after Nichols hit back-to-back 3-pointers to take a 32-27 lead. Benton didn’t view things like that at all – and proved it on the court. He answered with seven straight points – including a 3-point shot with 2:30 left in the third that gave the Hawks a lead they would not relinquish.

“He stepped up again,” O’Hara coach Tony Pulvirenti said. “Last time we played Nichols, he hit two big free throws at the end to help us win that game. He’s a senior, he’s going play as long as we can help him advance in his career.”

Benton’s spurt ignited a 14-3 run that closed out the third quarter that left the Hawks in command. That run grew to 22-4 in the fourth and Nichols was down for the count – ending its run of four straight trips to the Manhattan Cup finals.

“The speed of the game changed,” Nichols coach Pat Clarke said. “In the first half – other than maybe the start of the game – we did a good job of holding them to defensive rebounding and holding them to one shot. Once the game got going fast, those shots turned into layups and then second shots.”

The Hawks will play Niagara Catholic – a 67-60 winner over St. Mary’s in Saturday’s other semi – at 6 p.m. Tuesday back at the Koessler Center – in O’Hara’s first trip to the Manhattan Cup championship game for the first time since 1994.

That was back when the small-school Hawks were up against the big Monsignor Martin Athletic Association teams – but this is still O’Hara’s first crack at a Class B crown since the new format was unveiled in 2015.

“I tried to talk all the history to them,’ Pulvirenti said. “I think they get it now. They’re getting older now, they look at the big picture more.”

Benton scored a game-best 21 points – 12 coming in that decisive third quarter. Justin Hemphill added 12 and Daedin Cottman 10 for the Hawks (14-10).

Chris Stineman scored 14 to lead Nichols (11-15).

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