With just under two minutes left to play on Saturday night — his players and crowd rising to their feet roaring in celebration and a Section 1 title mere moments away — Keith Wright put his hands together, smiled and looked up at the Pace University ceiling.
“Thank you,” he said closing his eyes. “Thank you.”
Hamilton’s coach had every reason to be grateful in that moment. After nine years of waiting as a head coach, and two agonizing near-misses, Wright was about to wrap those appreciative hands around that elusive Gold Ball.
A coach demanded executiion from his team on Saturday night in the Class C championship and received near pefection. Top-seeded Hamilton blew out Haldane in the final, 66-47, to deliver the storied program its first title since 2007.
“They were locked in today… surprisingly,” Wright said with a smile. “They were focused. We put a lot of work into this. These were a lot of the same kids that lost to Haldane two years ago. Last year, we felt we let one slip away to North Salem. But they put in a lot of work. Tonight, they earned it.”
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Hamilton (17-5) dominated the game after the opening three minuntes until the final buzzer. The Red Raiders went up 16 at the half, led by as many as 26 in the third and never gave Haldane (15-7) an inkling it could come back.
David Cousin was sensational in an MVP effort. The senior guard registered 16 points on 7 of 13 shooting with six assists. As a team Hamilton scored 46-percent from the floor but controlled everything on defense, forcing 20 turnovers and creating havoc on almost every Haldane possession.
“That was all hunger and grit,” Cousin said. “Coach says it all starts on defense. Right off the jump, we were locked in on defense. We know we are going to score regardless. But we know defense is what wins these games.”
The Red Raiders had no shortage of offensive options in the final. Kemron Frederick, a 6-foot-7 senior, had 16 points and four blocks and Chris Harris came off the bench and contributed 14 points and five rebounds. Mike Napoli scored 11 in limited time because of fouls, hitting 5 of 7 shots.
Cousin, Frederick, Harris and Napoli combined to shoot 25 of 45 from the field in the game.
“We had the losses of the last two years stuck in our heads,” Frederick said. “We weren’t going to comeback crying into the locker room every again. We had to push, execute, and play solid defense. And I think we played some of the best defense we’ve ever played.”
The losses in the Section 1 finals the last two season — to Haldane in 2016 and North Salem last March — resonated in these players’ minds on Saturday night.
It also did for their coach.
In 2016, Hamilton was in control in the third quarter against Haldane in the final seconds of the third quarter. That’s when a hard foul against the Red Raiders and a near fight turned to chaos, ultimately resulting in two technical fouls and ejection on Wright.
Haldane rolled in the fourth quarter to capture a third straight title.
“One thing I learned that game,” Wright said, “Is that I have to keep my cool.”
Hamilton may not have ever played as composed and confident under Wright as they did on Saturday night. And now this Section 1 championship team can realistically think about much larger goals.
“I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’m taking this one day at a time,” said Wright, who is the third Hamilton alum to win a section title as a player and coach at the school, joining two former high school teammates in Drew Watson and Ural Hogans. Wright was also part of state championships with the school in 1988 and 1990.
While Wright is going to take a few days to celebrate with the Gold Ball, his players have bigger dreams.
“I want more,” Cousin said. “I want to go states. I want more. We all do.”