By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
CANAJOHARIE -- The Canajoharie Cougars were desperate to drive the final spike into Friday night's edge-of-your-seat Western Athletic Conference boys basketball game against Saratoga Central Catholic.
Kevin Shannon had the hammer, and he made his one swing count.
Nursing a two-point lead over the Saints in the waning seconds of overtime, Canajoharie's Zach Bowerman drove the baseline with the shot clock winding down. Out of room, he slipped a pass into the corner to Dillan Veeder, who whipped the ball back to the top of the key to a wide-open Shannon.
The buzzer sounded, and an instant later the ball dropped through the net with 23 seconds to play, at last giving the Cougars the breathing room they needed to go on to a 48-42 win and take command of the WAC North Division race.
"It was just everything you want in a game," Shannon said. "The clock was winding down, and to be completely honest, there were two or three other kids on the floor that could've hit that shot. I was just fortunate to get a good look and put up a shot, and it went in."
There might have been plenty of options, but Canajoharie coach Phil Schoff said that in the biggest spots this season, Shannon has always been there to give the Cougars (10-2, 7-1 WAC North) a lift.
"Kevin has done this all year. He did against Schoharie in our Christmas tournament," Schoff said. "He's our senior leader, and whenever we need a play, he makes it happen."
Shannon's 3-pointer gave the Cougars a 47-42 lead, and while Spa Catholic had two chances to cut into the lead in the waning seconds, Saints (6-6, 5-3) head coach Ken Mantia said that his team was knocked for a loop by Shannon's shot and didn't have time to recover.
"The 3-pointer was kind of a dagger," Mantia said. "That hurt. That was a tough spot for us."
The overtime victory for Canajoharie came after a see-saw battle that found the Cougars down eight points midway through the third quarter, only to rally to take the lead early in the fourth quarter before the Saints forced overtime on a Keegan Murphy jumper from the foul line with 24 seconds left in regulation.
In the extra session, the spark for Canajoharie's victory came from forward Zach Folts. The junior was a presence in the paint the entire game -- along with Shannon and Veeder, Folts played all 36 minutes Friday night -- but struggled to finish around the rim. But, less than 90 seconds into overtime, Folts flipped in a shot while being fouled by Michael Naughton, then converted the 3-point play that gave Canajoharie the lead for good at 42-39.
"'Foltsie' has a knack for being around the basket and being in the spots where we need him," Schoff said. "He was struggling a little at the beginning of the game, and you could see he hung his head a little bit, but then all of a sudden at the end of the game he steps up for us."
Folts spent a good deal of the first two-and-a-half quarters manning the middle by himself for Canajoharie, with both starting center Josh Gonzalez and backup big man Zach Ouderkirk stuck on the bench in foul trouble. With the Cougars playing a four-guard lineup for extended stretches, the Saints were able to build up a 32-24 lead midway through the third quarter.
Then Gonzalez came back into the game, and after the two teams traded baskets, Canajoharie's speedy guard trio of Bowerman, Veeder and Shannon took advantage of Folts and Gonzalez's presence in the frontcourt to spark a 12-0 run that ended with the Cougars up four midway through the fourth.
"We were in foul trouble, so it didn't really help us at first. Once we got our big guys back, it kind of gave us a spark," Veeder said.
Though the Saints came back to force overtime, Schoff was thrilled with the way his team responded down the stretch to give the Cougars a two-game lead over Spa Catholic and Fort Plain for the top spot in the WAC North.
"Right now, the ball's in our court, and that's the best part," Schoff said. "As a coach, I don't want to worry about other teams, I want to worry about us first. Now, with that win in our books, it's up to us to execute the rest of the way."
The Cougars can put a stranglehold on the division race Tuesday at Fort Plain against a Hilltoppers team that handed Canajoharie its lone league loss of the season Dec. 12 in Canajoharie.
"We've just gotta finish out with wins. We can't let up with any more losses," Veeder said. "We've gotta come out strong Tuesday against Fort Plain. It's gonna be a big game."
"We're gonna come out strong," Shannon added, "and we will win."