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  • Jerry Sullivan

Resilient Falls advances to State Semis

Photos by Shawn Turri

Niagara Falls coach Carlos Bradberry raised some eyebrows when he decided to play an independent schedule this season, opting not to compete in a league. 

The Wolverines took on all comers. They played the best schools in Rochester and Syracuse, traveled for games in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland, took on the best catholic and public school teams in the area. 

It wasn’t always easy, or elegant, for a young team without a lot of pure offensive talent. But the Wolverines were tough and relentless, and the challenging schedule prepared them for the crucible of basketball in March.

“They’re resilient,” Bradberry said after Niagara Falls beat University Prep Charter of Rochester, 54-48, in Friday night’s Class AAA NYSPHSAA Far West Regional at Buffalo State. “It’s funny, people said ‘Hey, why did you do this independent schedule?’

“This is why. We’ve been through this now. We’ve seen everything we could possibly see, and it helped us right here.”

Adversity has a way of sharpening a team. The Falls weathered a 15-0 run by UPrep at the start of the third quarter, falling behind by five. But with Bradberry exhorting them from the bench, the Wolverines showed their resiliency.

They tightened their defense, showed more purpose on offense and outscored the Griffins by 11 the rest of the way to earn a spot in the state semifinals at 2:15 p.m. on March 16 at Cool Insuring Arena in Glens Falls. The Wolverines will face either Baldwin (Section VIII) or Bay Shore (Section XI).

At times, Niagara Falls seems to lose focus with a lead. They led at half, 26-16, then allowed UPrep to score five layups in a 15-0 run to open the third quarter. The Wolverines were in disarray, turning it over, throwing up airballs. 

In the previous game, Randolph had also allowed a 15-0 run in the third quarter. But unlike Randolph, the Falls persevered. Junior point guard Nick Estell and senior big man Omarion Ralands led the charge, combining for nine straight made free throws as the Wolverines took a 39-37 lead after three. 

The Falls never trailed again. At one point, Bradberry urged his team to feed Estell, who had a favorable matchup. Estell, a junior, rewarded his coach by making two key baskets to keep the Falls up by six midway through the fourth.

Estell, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds and three assists, was asked how his team had rallied from that 15-0 surge by UPrep.

“Wait, what did you say?”

They had a 15-0 run, he was told. 

“They did? I didn’t know that! Man, we just keep playing, keep our heads up, keep going. The game was so fast. We just kept our heads up, trying new things, going for rebounds, playing defense fully-court, stuff like that.

“This starts off in practice and stuff, battling against each other,” Estell said. “All of us at the beginning of the season said, ‘We want to go to Glens this year’, and we’re doing it. Now we have another game moving forward.”

Now they’re back in the state semifinals for the first time in Bradberry’s four years as head coach, and the first time since 2019. 

“That was the goal from day one,” Bradberry said. “Especially for me, because  this is a group that people didn’t think was going to be very good, and they gelled into one of the best overall teams I’ve ever had, as far as guys caring for each other and sacrificing their own game for the betterment of the team.”

Estell remembers watching that 2019 state semifinal team when he was a sixth-grader, looking up to those older hoop stars in the Falls.

“It was inspiring, to see all those dudes who were older than me play,” he said. “I was like, ‘One day I want to play there, too.’

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