BOYS HOOPS: Notre Dame outlasts rival Elba for D2 class title | Sports

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GAINESVILLE — When Mike Rapone announced before the season that this would be his last winter on the sidelines after more than four decades, the Notre Dame players made it their mission to send their longtime head coach in with what would be the 10th Section V championship in his illustrious career.

The Fighting Irish were able to accomplish that mission on Saturday in Saturday’s Class D2 Championship match at Letchworth High School, but certainly not without a fight from a relentless Elba side.

Tournament MVP Colin McCulley finished with a game-high 19 points, including a 3-point second-quarter barrage when Notre Dame was able to extend their lead, while the Fighting Irish were able to pull away rival Lancers late for a 59-46 victory.

“They played tonight like they’ve done all year, they’re playing hard and they’re playing together,” Rapone said. “They don’t let go. We have a few bad races but we are fighting to get through them.

McCulley scored 14 of his points in the second quarter, while point guard Jordan Welker added 13 points on the day for the Irish, who led by just three early in the fourth quarter before a 10-0 run over more than four minutes gives them a cushion that Elba couldn’t break in the stretch,

Notre Dame then did enough to the charity strip in the final two minutes to seal the win, the program’s first section title since 2014.

“I want to give credit where it’s due because Mikey (Rapone) was really the guy who ran everything to get what we just got,” Rapone said. “He did an outstanding job. Exactly the way I wanted to come out, sitting on the bench, watching the game, helping out when he needed it, but he did an outstanding job and these guys will attest to that. He prepared them, they know what they’re doing, it’s a good system and as a father I’m so proud of him.

Notre Dame’s balanced offense also allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to score his eight points in the fourth quarter, while Jimmy Fanara had seven points and Cody Henry added five.

CJ Gottler hit a number of big shots that day to keep the Lancers around and he finished with a team-high 15 points, while Zach Marsceill added 12 points in the losing effort.

It was only the second time these two longtime foes had met in the Division Championship match.

“It’s almost hard to believe. It’s coach Rapone’s last season, we’re playing in the section finals against our rival Elba and we’re winning,” McCulley said. “I still can’t believe this happened.”

Notre Dame’s offense struggled early on against a stifling Elba defense and trailed 7-3 midway through the first quarter after Gottler scored five points in a 7-0 Lancers drive. After the Irish broke the mini-run, Gottler scored on the break from a nice flat Marsceill to make it 9-5 but a Jaden Sherwood bucket at the buzzer for ND would eventually cut the lead to 9-8 after a.

Marsceill then scored five straight points early in the second quarter before a bucket from Gottler inside gave Elba their biggest lead of the day at 16-11 with just over six minutes left in the mid -time.

But that’s when McCulley and Notre Dame began to catch fire.

Welker would connect on a triple with 5:45 left in the half to start the Irish on a 17-4 run to close out the first half. During the run, McCulley hit a trio of 3-pointers in the space of a minute and a half, including one with 1:26 that gave Notre Dame a 28-19 advantage. That lead was 28-20 in the locker room.

“We had faced them twice before with the emotions of each game, so we knew what was coming,” Welker said. “Coach Mikey really tried to put us in our heads to calm us down and block out all the noise.”

The Lancers, however, would not leave.

Gottler capped a 5-0 push in the first 1:45 of the third quarter to bring Elba within three, but McCulley would respond with a deep two to start Notre Dame on a 9-3 run during the next two minutes and more to bring the lead back to nine at 38-29.

The lead would remain nine until later in the third when, once again, Elba would make a run to get back into it. Connor Scott scored on a fine run to the hoop, while Mike Long and Jake Walczak also scored in the final two minutes of the frame to bring the Lancers within three at 39-36 with eight minutes remaining.

Notre Dame, however, would prove too much.

After another 3-pointer from Gottler 35 seconds into fourth that reduced the Irish lead to three, a three-point play from Henry would launch Notre Dame on what would prove to be the grueling run, capped by a triple Fitzpatrick who made it 52-39 with only 2:50 remaining.

The closest Elba could get the rest of the way was eight, as the Fighting Irish hit 5 of 8 from the free-throw line late to close it.

“Every night we go out and play, it’s just another game for us,” Henry said. “We went out and the thing Mikey taught us was just to be better than the team we’re playing against on that court that night. And that’s what we did today, that’s what it boiled down to.

Notre Dame improved to 20-3 and will now play in the Class D state qualifiers this week, while Elba finished another solid season at 15-8.

“We’re going to have a short week of practice, but we’re going to have to go back and refocus and listen to what the coach is saying and stick with practice,” McCulley said. “We have to put all of this behind us. We’re going to celebrate tonight, but after that, it’s time to go.

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