NEWBURGH — Cornwall didn’t win by overwhelming Warwick with an abundance of talent. The Dragons didn’t quell the Wildcats with a super deep bench or an ethereal superstar. What Cornwall did was an even more impressive feat, out-muscling Warwick with a modest arsenal of players who simply wanted it more.
On Saturday at Mount Saint Mary College, Cornwall stuffed Warwick’s late surge, clinching the Section 9 Class A championship with a 43-32 win in a tightly contested affair. The air was thick with tension until late in the fourth quarter, when the Dragons roared ahead for good and never looked back.
Cornwall moves on to the first round of the state Class A playoffs. The Dragons face the Section 4 winner on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Vestal High School.
Cornwall coach Chris Miller said at the end of the game what he thought at the beginning of the season but now has visible, tangible proof: “This is the most mentally tough team I’ve coached,” he said.
The way the game unfolded, it’s not hard to believe it. Alanna Malone’s 3-pointer in the first quarter brought the Dragons, who trailed early, within one. Brooke Zimmer added a triple to give Cornwall a lead at 12-10. She’d hit another one to extend the advantage to 26-18.
“Everyone didn’t think that highly of us,” Zimmer said, of the expectations of this team before the season.
At the start of the season, few, if any, coaches were mentioning Cornwall as the top team to watch in Class A. There were several other serious contenders, from Roosevelt to Red Hook to Goshen to, of course, Warwick. As the season progressed, however, it became apparent that this Cornwall team was going to be better than the 2018-19 version, despite losing its best player in Maggie Malone.
The Dragons knocked off the Wildcats twice in the regular season and secured a huge statement win at home against Class AA champion Monroe-Woodbury, a win Miller said might have been his best ever in the regular season.
Warwick hung on, knotting the score at 29 all heading into the fourth quarter, determined not to lose for a third time to the same team. But Warwick coach Jim O’Brien failed to win a Section 9 title game for the third time in four years. He said of his players after walking out of the locker room, “We need kids that want to score.” O’Brien added that this isn’t track, that his players can’t just run hard and get an award.
Led by Kristen Desrats, Warwick made it a game and contributed to an electric atmosphere. But Cornwall played the way it knew it was capable of back in November. These girls were confident in their ability to perform in the fourth quarter before the first quarter of the season started, and that’s why they are section champs.
Miller was laudatory of all his girls postgame, but none more than Eli Bulusan, the point guard who may not score a ton but guides the unit on offense and shuts down opponents on defense. He called her the best player in Section 9. On Saturday, Bulusan was more preoccupied with ranking something else.
“This is the best feeling in the world,” Bulusan said.