Neuqua Valley has made some big strides on the hardwood the last couple of weeks and it did not go unnoticed by Oswego East in the title game of the 52nd East Aurora Holiday Tournament on Friday night.
A Wildcats team that opened the season 2-7 won three straight games at East Aurora to reach the title game, then gave the Wolves a battle before coming up on the short end of a 61-53 score.
Oswego East (8-5) had beaten Neuqua Valley earlier this year, but coach Ryan Velasquez saw a different team this time around. Six-foot-5 senior Dubem Ogbuefi pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds for the runner-up, Noah Herdman led a balanced attack with 15 points and freshman John Poulakidas tallied 11 second-half points to keep his team in the hunt for the title.
"We helped each other (on defense) on some of the action they had," Velasquez said. "They're a good team. That's the second time we faced them. They're much better the second time around."
Herdman opened the night's scoring with the first of his three 3-pointers and Ogbuefi had 7 rebounds in the first quarter alone, which ended with Neuqua Valley (5-8) on top 13-10. But tourney MVP Sam Schultz had a big second quarter with 8 of his 19 points as the Wolves took a 27-23 lead at the half.
Oswego East extended the lead to 46-38 after three quarters and held on even as Herdman, Poulakidas and Ryan Lake did their best to rally the Wildcats -- the trio combined for seven 3s in the second half.
"We're making some shots now. You're right (we're better than we were three weeks ago)," Wildcats coach Todd Sutton said.
But Neuqua Valley just couldn't contain Schultz, the Wolves' talented sophomore.
"We told them before the game that he's the MVP of the tournament," Sutton said. "He got his average against us and he was the MVP of the tournament.
"We were playing the best guy in the tournament and he performed. We had no answer. It was an absolute mismatch. We had no one who could guard him."
Even in defeat, however, the Wildcats flashed signs of a team that may be turning the corner. One big plus was the play of Ogbuefi, who drew plenty of attention every time he touched the ball down low. The big guy would like to have tallied more than 6 points, but he did have the huge night on the boards and also passed out 4 assists.
"It was tough down low," he said of the extra attention he received from the Wolves defense. "There were always those two guys waiting for me. I couldn't get it going tonight. I struggled a little bit."
That said, signs of improvement are evident.
"We were working hard … we're definitely improving," he said. "We're working hard in practice and getting better every day. That's all we can ask for. I worked as hard as I could. Got all the boards I could. That worked well for us today."