When last the Bethlehem boys' basketball team won a Section II title, the current members of the team — and some of their parents — had yet to be born. Colonie's last title reign came at the turn of the century. Tuesday night, Bethlehem and Colonie secured Class AA semifinal victories at Glens Falls Civic Center.
Bethlehem (20-3), last a champion in 1972, defeated La Salle 64-58 in the first semifinal. Colonie (19-3), the No. 1 seed, quelled repeated challenges by Schenectady to post a 72-61 triumph to set up a rubber match between the budding rivals Saturday night for the championship. Each team beat the other by a 62-59 margin this season, and the two teams also engaged in three meetings during the 2015-16 season with Colonie beating Bethlehem in the first round.
Saturday's stakes will be much higher.
"It seems to have developed into a nice matchup," Colonie coach Ken Dagostino said. "All those guys are really good players. They can shoot and are well-coached. I don't think you would think Bethlehem and Colonie (as a rivalry). You would think it would be us and Schenectady, us and Albany, or us and CBA. We've had good games with them."
"I would say it's a rivalry. I'm not going to lie," Colonie junior Bryce Waterman said. "Whenever we play them, we bring the best out of them and they bring the best out of us."
La Salle (16-7), the No. 7 seed, forced the Eagles to raise their level immediately after jumping out to a 11-3 lead with a 9-0 spurt. Bethlehem coach A.G. Irons ripped into his team for a second time at the end of the first quarter regarding the passivity of its 2-3 zone.
The Eagles changed things in the second stanza, getting a 13-point barrage from senior Ryan Murray and much more activity in the zone as La Salle committed eight turnovers to fall behind 27-20 at halftime.
"We got out on the break after some steals. That is our game," Bethlehem senior point guard Matthew Riker said. "Ryan uses his body so well with shot fakes. I can't care if a guy is six inches taller, I am confident to give him the ball and he is going to score."
La Salle cut its deficit to three points in the fourth quarter. Riker (13 points) responded with a 3-pointer to put Bethlehem up 51-45 and the Eagles held off the Cadets down the stretch.
"It feels great that both the coaches and my teammates have confidence in me to have the ball in my hands. It means a lot," Riker said.
Murray led the way with 23 points on 8-for-12 shooting. La Salle coach Steve Sgambelluri coached Murray's cousin Mike and knew the Bethlehem senior would be a handful to contain.
"He just plays so hard and puts you into positions where you have to adjust," Sgambelluri said. "He is a tough player and they are a tough team."
"We saw the team we had and were like, 'we can do this in this section. This is our year.' We're not surprised (to be in the final)," Murray said.
In the second semifinal, Colonie's ball movement and spacing vs. Schenectady was a vast improvement over Saturday's showing vs. Green Tech. The combination of Isaiah Moll and Waterman staked the Garnet Raiders to a 35-25 halftime advantage.
Waterman drained four of his 3-pointers in the first half and finished with a team-high 22 points.
"Coach told me to move more without the ball and they were trying to get me open when they can," Waterman said. "My teammates did a great job of finding me tonight."
"This game, (the ball movement) was a big thing," Moll said. "We didn't do it like we usually do it before the postseason, but we did well enough to get the job done."
Colonie had 13 assists on 24 baskets. The Garnet Raiders staved off repeated challenges from the Patriots (17-6). Ultimately, three things did in Schenectady: 1-for-17 shooting from 3-point range, being outscored 17-8 at the foul line and committing 16 turnovers.
Schenectady, paced by 27 points from Cameron Coles, relentlessly attacked the rim after intermission and made 25 of 33 shots inside the 3-point arc.
"They played hard and they are coached well," Waterman said of Schenectady. "We had to keep the foot on the peddle to get that win."
"Bryce hit some big shots for us," said Moll, who contributed 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Although he lamented about his team's defensive performance, Dagostino is thrilled about being in Saturday's title game.
"This means a lot for Colonie, the community, the school and these guys. They've worked so hard," Dagostino said.
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