By ADAM SHINDER
Recorder Sports Staff
GLENS FALLS - After a season full of great escapes and rousing comebacks, the Canajoharie Cougars finally met a team that could answer their every challenge - and more.
Playing at the Glens Falls Civic Center in the Section II Class C semifinals Wednesday night for the first time since 2009, the Cougars encountered a powerhouse of a Hoosic Valley Indians team that shut off everything Canajoharie wanted to do on offense and methodically pulled away over the final three quarters for a 55-30 victory.
His head hanging slightly after the final basketball game of his high school career, Canajoharie (17-4) senior guard Kevin Shannon acknowledged that the Cougars simply ran into a buzzsaw Wednesday night.
"Tonight, we got outplayed. There's nothing else that can be said for it," Shannon said. "One team comes out on top at the end of the game, and unfortunately it wasn't us tonight."
John Rooney scored a game-high 20 points for the top-seeded Indians (19-2), including a back-breaking 3-point buzzer-beater at the end of the first half that gave Hoosic Valley a 15-point lead at intermission. Mike Pierre added 10 points for Hoosic Valley, while J.T. Sawyer and Ethan Ross-Hixson scored nine apiece.
It was on the other side of the court, however, where things unraveled for Canajoharie. Hoosic Valley's tight man-to-man defense limited Canajoharie to just 22.2 percent shooting (8-of-36) from the field and limited the Cougars' two leading scorers - point guard Dillan Veeder and forward Josh Gonzalez - to a combined 10 points.
Canajoharie coach Phil Schoff said that while his team has been successful against man-to-man defensive looks all season long, Wednesday night the Indians cut off Veeder's penetration to the basket and the rest of the Cougars' offense fell by the wayside as a result.
"One of the things we've been good at all year is penetrating off our ball screens - especially against man," Schoff said. "I felt like we've played our best games when teams have gone man against us, so we were happy to see them go man as we expected.
"We never really got in a rhythm. We couldn't put the ball in the ocean. We got some easy opportunities to go into the paint, but we didn't finish and we didn't execute any of our plays offensively."
Down 14-10 after the first quarter, Canajoharie saw its offense all but disappear over the game's final 24 minutes. The Cougars made just four field goals over the final three quarters, while the Indians simply stepped on the gas pedal to open up a 27-12 lead at the half and lead by as many as 29 points in the second half.
By the time Rooney, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, drove the baseline for an emphatic left-handed dunk - and converted a 3-point play after being fouled by Bowerman - to open up a 25-point gap at the midway point of the third quarter, the Cougars simply didn't have any answers left.
"That's a championship-caliber team right there. They deserve their one seed," Schoff said. "In order to win a championship like this, you've got to be able to answer in any situation. We'd capitalize off a turnover, they came right back with an answer. That's something I thought we'd been prepared for all year, but at this stage in the game, if you don't consistently do that then you can't win."
The loss, though disheartening, wasn't nearly enough to overwrite in Schoff's mind what was a terrific season for the WAC North champion Cougars.
"It's always difficult at this time of the year, because the only team that will ever end on a win is the team that wins everything - states included," he said. "It's gonna be difficult for us, it's gonna sting right now, but we can't allow our fourth loss to be an indicator of how we view our entire season."
It's a sentiment that, at the end of his high school playing career, Cougars guard Zach Bowerman echoed completely.
"This is the most fun year I've ever had in basketball," said Bowerman, who led Canajoharie with 13 points Wednesday. "People didn't expect us to get this far, and we came in as one team, one big group. We're 14 players, but we're like one unit. We got this far and proved everyone wrong. Would've liked to go another game, but it was a fun year."