‘We ain’t no joke’: Aquinas beats Leadership for the 2nd time

Wesley Henderson (5) led Aquinas with 17 points in Wednesday’s win. (Photo: BILLY HEYEN)

By BILLY HEYEN

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Gabe Miller had been a distributor the whole fourth quarter, finding his shooters and dropping passes off to his center, Shannon Sims. With the shot clock off, Aquinas ball, tie game, Miller’s first plan was to pass once more. 

As Miller drove left, Jack Bleier curled around the top of the key for a potential dish for a 3-pointer. But as Miller used a hesitation dribble to assess his options, he saw that no one had slid in front of his path to the basket. So the Li’l Irish guard continued left and reversed beneath the rim at the last second to avoid Leadership shot blocker Kennyh Hardeman. The ball dropped off the glass and in.

“They let me come up the court and I saw an opening,” Miller said, “and I took it.”

One more stop cemented Miller’s bucket as the game-winner in a 73-71 win for Aquinas (6-4) at Leadership Academy (9-2) on Wednesday night. The Li’l Irish have handed the Lions both of their losses this season, each by two points. Aquinas was led by 17 points from Wesley Henderson, along with 15 for Miller and 14 each for Sims and Myles Blackwood, to pull off the repeat win, this time as the visitors.

“They’re a good team,” Aquinas assistant coach Jeff Page said, “so we knew it was gonna be a difficult game. We’re playing at their place, and we’re starting to kind of figure things out as a team.”

Blackwood stormed out of the gates with six quick points for the Li’l Irish, including a two-handed dunk on a fastbreak. It looked like Wednesday could be a repeat of the first meeting between these teams, when Blackwood scored a career-high 29 points. But two early fouls sent Blackwood to the bench, where he stayed for the rest of the first half.

In his absence, the left-handed Henderson worked the left side of the floor to score. He pulled up at the left elbow for 2, then hit a 3 from the left wing before scoring on a steal and hitting another pull-up jumper. 

“I can go both ways, but if they try to force me right, I can counter that if I go strong to my left,” Henderson said, “or if I come back with my little midrange pull-up game.”

Most of Miller’s scoring came in the first half. Listed at 5-foot-9, Miller had to be crafty in the lane all night long to avoid Hardeman’s long arms, and most of his moves worked. There was a floater followed by a short pull-up jumper. He scored again by pulling up short of the rim, cashing from the right elbow.

Miller didn’t shy away from contact on a break late in the first half, finishing as the whistle blew and converting his three-point play at the line. He finished off his 11-point half with a lefty runner off glass.

For Aquinas to pull out another tight win, it’d need to slow down Leadership’s Maurice McKinney, who hit clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch to finish with 28 points. The Li’l Irish had the answers, though.

There were multiple dump-offs from Miller to Sims, who scored 10 of his 14 in the fourth quarter. Then there was a Bleier triple to answer one of McKinney’s and tie the game at 69 with 1:07 to play.

“We’re starting to see that we can win with many different pieces,” Page said. “Obviously certain pieces are big for us, but we’re getting contributions from a lot of different guys.” 

A Leadership bucket by Calvin Washington took the lead back before Henderson scored on a difficult lefty shot in the lane. 

“I was just thinking to be patient,” Henderson said of his approach on that late possession. “I knew I had shooters on my right side, but if they collapsed on me I’d just get the layup.”

Aquinas’ focus all game had been “one stop, one stop,” Henderson said, and a good closeout on Washington got the stop the Li’l Irish needed to set up Miller’s go-ahead basket. Then, with four seconds on the clock and the ball in McKinney’s hands, Aquinas got one final stop as the horn sounded.

There’s an old sports mantra that it’s hard to beat a team twice in one season. It’s harder still when the second time is on the prior loser’s floor, and harder still when that opponent is No. 15 in the state in Class A, as Leadership is. 

Aquinas did it, though. Miller bounded off the floor and bumped chests with Will Scanlon. Henderson stretched out his hands for low-fives from anyone within reach. They’d made their statement.

“We come to play every time,” Miller said. “We ain’t no joke.”

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