UPrep Griffins soar to Class AA sectional title

UPrep poses with its sectional championship awards after Saturday night’s game. (Photo: BILLY HEYEN)

By BILLY HEYEN

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — UPrep’s Na’Zea Fowlks didn’t consider what he was going to do, the ferocity with which he was about to throw the ball through the rim with his left hand. He was just energized. He’d soaked up the Blue Cross Arena atmosphere throughout pregame warmups, dancing and smiling and clapping his hands. It built up inside of him.

So midway through the first quarter, when Fowlks took off in the middle of the lane, he didn’t need to think about anything. He just threw down Section V’s dunk of the season, and it put UPrep on the path to a title.

“Once we got those two (early dunks), it was like, we can’t lose,” Fowlks said. “We’ve got too much momentum to lose now.”

The two-seed Griffins held off McQuaid late, 81-76, thanks to 28 points from Melvin Council Jr. and 26 from Fowlks on Saturday night. UPrep, a team led by four seniors in its starting lineup, had lost in the sectional final to the Knights a year ago. Behind its high-flying start and enough late-game composure, UPrep avenged that loss with the school’s second boys basketball sectional title and first in Class AA.

“It was just so exciting,” UPrep senior Kayshawn Ross said. “… Best feeling ever.”

McQuaid beat UPrep by an identical 81-75 margin in the final a year ago. The Griffins were already thinking about this season in the locker room after that game, assistant coach Jerice Crouch said. UPrep knew it’d have four seniors — Fowlks, Council, Ross and Christian Edwards — in its starting lineup. 

It’s a quartet that UPrep head coach Demond Stewart suggested doesn’t come around very often, four players with such immense talent in the same year at the same school.

“There’s no way in the world all four of y’all should be on the same team at the same time,” Stewart said he tells his group. “… I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but when all those four seniors play together, it’s hard to beat them in Rochester.”

The regular season wasn’t perfect for UPrep, with two losses to Leadership stinging especially hard, but Stewart knew that if he could get his seniors playing on top of their games, the Griffins would be a tough out. 

Saturday, that’s what Stewart got. Council connected on a cross-court pass to Fowlks for an early 3. Then Fowlks threw down his massive slam. Only moments after the crowd’s buzz had settled following the first jam, Kayshawn Ross flew down the lane to finish with two hands, too.

“They’re two of the most athletic kids in the area,” Crouch said. “And so for them to come out there and set the tone for the game, it got everyone energized, it got them energized and it just propelled us to let us control the game the rest of the way.”

The remainder of the first half was all about Council. His father, Melvin Sr., won sectional MVP for Wilson 20 years ago in Class A, the largest classification that year. The younger Council took over the game Saturday after the two slams. He scored inside and outside, in transition and the halfcourt offense, on floaters and three-point plays.

Council’s final bucket of the first half came on a drive down the right side of the lane with the clock ticking down. Through contact, Council banked the ball off the glass and in. He made the free throw, too, sending UPrep into the half up 13.

“It might sound crazy to anybody,” Fowlks said, “but it’s not even impressive no more. I’m so used to Melvin going up for crazy scoring outputs. When you see something like that, you just get used to it after a while.”

McQuaid pushed its way back into the game on a number of occasions in the second half, but the Griffins’ seniors weren’t having it. Fowlks had one of his best games of the season, relying on his outside touch to continue scoring. Ross didn’t score for nearly two quarters after his dunk, but he closed the third quarter on a high with a euro step layup.

Into the fourth, Ross helped ice the game with six made free throws to finish with 11 points

“We couldn’t go out without a W,” Ross said. “We had to. We had to work as hard as we can to get it.”

Fowlks made sure that Edwards, UPrep’s fourth senior starter and one of the keys to the Griffins’ semifinal win, got his highlight late in the game, too. After Fowlks swatted a shot at the rim, Edwards took the ball coast-to-coast for a bucket and two of his six points.

“For us to all be seniors, we know that we had to win, or it was over for us, and we didn’t want to lose,” Fowlks said.

Another Fowlks block set up a Council bucket, and then Fowlks dunked once more himself in the closing seconds. At the final buzzer, the Griffins kept on jumping right out toward center court in jubilation. Then when the game organizers threw the celebratory fake nets at the Griffins, they leaped for those, too.

“Moments like that, as a kid, as a teenager, whatever you want to call it,” Fowlks said, “just being able to say you got the net or something like that. And we’re all competitive, so I can’t let one of my teammates get the net.”

As the title sunk in with the UPrep seniors, it hit them differently. Council took 10 seconds to put his head in his hands and cry. Ross danced to a tune in his own head. Fowlks strolled around telling people that he’d be keeping the net around his neck for days and that he felt so good he wouldn’t mind walking home. 

There was one added commonality among UPrep’s senior class Saturday night that hadn’t been there before, though. The Griffins’ postgame breakdown in their locker room was different. For the first time, they could count to three and end in a word reserved for what they now were.

“Champions.”

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