Photo from The Buffalo News
PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Zack Panebianco - Jamestown, Junior
19.1 PPG / 4.1 APG / 3.5 RPG / 2.2 SPG
At the end of the 2012 season, I was at Buffalo State talking with some friends at the conclusion of championship Saturday and they were already looking towards the following season and trying to project who would be on top. Jamestown had just lost a three-point decision to Niagara Falls for the Section VI Class AA title, after junior Tommy Campion's potential game-tying '3' missed at the buzzer. The others in the conversation were already projecting a Falls/Jamestown rematch in the 2013 final, something I agreed with. As they made their case for Jamestown being back, they pointed to Campion, sophomore Quinn Lee Yaw, and freshman Branden Kellam all coming back. I remember adding to their assessment something to the effect of, "don't forget about the other freshman, Zack Panebianco, he's not real flashy but he's so composed".
Fast forward two seasons from that moment, and the then quiet but capable Panebianco has now led Jamestown to a second consecutive Section VI Class AA title and is about to embark on an improbable run all the way to the state championship game. In a season where three Section VI teams played for state championships, the run that one team made really stood out, and particularly the performances of one player stood out. If choosing a Player of the Year is really about rewarding the player who turned in the best season, this season, there's one player who separated himself from the pack by scoring, by leading, and by winning. As the season wore on and the competition became more challenging, he accepted the challenges and delivered in ways we hadn't seen before. Jamestown's Zack Panebianco is your 2014 Centercourt Player of the Year.
In the summer months prior to the start of the season, rumors began swirling that Branden Kellam would be transferring out of Jamestown and heading to Rochester. By early August it was official, Kellam had moved and would play for Bishop Kearney. Despite his departure, I still considered Jamestown the favorite, but felt the playing field had been significantly leveled in the local Class AA ranks. The Red Raiders could still win the section, I thought, but whoever wins in Class AA isn't getting past Greece Athena. I just didn't think we had a team in Class AA who could compete at the state level this season, and really didn't come across anyone who disputed that sentiment.
Jamestown actually had Greece Athena participating in its United Way Tournament to begin the season. The hope was that the two would meet up in the tournament final, as they were paired in separate matchups to begin the tournament. Instead, our first of several snow storms this winter caused the tournament's other two participants, Fredonia & Bennett to pull out of the Friday night portion. Greece Athena however, was already en route and wasn't turning back. At 4 pm that afternoon, I received an email from Jamestown coach Ben Drake: "Change of plans, we're playing Greece Athena tonight"!
So on the night of Jamestown's re-dedication of its gymnasium, they were suddenly facing the Section V Class AA favorite in the season-opener, with only a couple hours to prepare. Athena would eventually pull away in the fourth quarter and hand the Red Raiders a stinging 20-point home loss on a blizzardous night that was supposed to be a feel-good night in Jamestown.
"Our team got off to a slow start, I think there was a lingering effect from football season" said Drake.
A 1,000 yard receiver this season in football, Panebianco made 1st Team All-WNY from the Buffalo News as a defensive back, after breaking the sectional championship stadium record for receiving yards with 181.
"The football team had a long season and Zack came in to the basketball season with a concussion. He didn't start practicing for two weeks after the loss to Aquinas (November 14, 2013), so he didn't get much practice time. It took him awhile to get his basketball mojo going." Drake said.
Panebianco was solid to begin the season, but really began to hit his stride in a 30-point home win over Clarence on January 21st, when he scored 21 points to go with seven assists.
On February 1st, the Red Raiders made the long trip to Rochester to play in the finale of the RAP Classic against the event's host school, East High and its highly touted and high-scoring star, Dontay Caruthers. Jamestown took the team that would reach the NYSPHAA Class A state championship game to overtime and then defeated them behind a game-high 32-point night from Panebianco.
Two nights later, Jamestown visited Lancaster, where Panebianco went off for a career-high 37 points, and did it in just three quarters.
A week after his career outing in Lancaster, Panebianco and the Red Raiders were back in Jamestown hosting league rival Williamsville North and needing a victory to avenge an earlier loss to the Spartans and force a three-way tie atop the ECIC I standings heading into sectionals. With playoff seeding and a league championship on the line, Panebianco delivered a game-high 31 points, that included a 3-point dagger to thwart off a late attempt at a comeback by North and help seal what ended up a 67-54 victory.
The final regular season game came at home and was also senior night in Jamestown. Panebianco, a junior who is the last guy who would worry about his stats, was content to watch the seniors shine according to Drake, with all five scoring and three finishing in double figures, while a fourth scored nine points.
"On senior night against West Seneca West, he only scored four points because he wanted to make sure the seniors were all involved and got their time".
The postseason began with a 71-53 quarterfinal win over Frontier and a game-high 17 points for Panebianco. In the semifinals against Lockport at Buffalo State, the Red Raiders trailed most of the first three quarters as Lions' guard Colin Dougherty put on a show and wowed the crowd. But as the game reached its critical juncture, Panebianco asserted himself. He led Jamestown to an 11-point win with his game-high 26 points, along with six assists, advancing the Red Raiders to their fifth straight Class AA sectional final.
In the Section VI Class AA championship game against Clarence, Panebianco finished with 18 points, and was happy to defer to the hot hand, teammate Lee Yaw who scored 26 points, as his team won its rubber match with the Red Devils to move on to regionals.
Waiting for Jamestown in the Far West Regionals was an opponent they had already seen, an opponent who had spoiled the Red Raiders home-opener on re-dedication night - Greece Athena. However this time around, Panebianco wasn't coming off of a long football season or a concussion.
Instead he was focused. Incredibly focused. And that focus gave way to one of the most epic big game playoff performances witnessed in years by fans at the Buffalo State Sports Arena.
Panebianco helped the Red Raiders come flying out of the gate, scoring six points in the first three minutes. Jamestown began the game on a 14-0 run and led Greece Athena 34-22 at halftime, with Panebianco already sitting on 12 points by intermission. He was just getting warmed up.
Just over two minutes into the third quarter, the Trojans had trimmed the Jamestown lead to just five points. That's when the magic show began. To ensure his team's trip to the state final four, Panebianco went off in the second half, scoring 22 of the Red Raiders 27 points against a team that was frustrated by him and determined to stop him.
Not only did they fail to stop him, he wasn't even contained.
Seemingly trapped, the escape artist would split defenders, dribble around them, or zip a pass to an open teammate and then cut away from his defender to re-acquire the ball. As he would begin to penetrate, the defense would collapse on him - bodies much larger than him there to swat away whatever he managed to throw into the air. Except somehow, he squirmed through the defense anyway. Somehow he would hang in the air just long enough to get a shot attempt off while drawing contact that would send him to the line.
Once he got to the charity stripe - clutch. No big game pressure, just swish after swish. A perfect 10 for 10 from the free throw line.
And how about those 3-pointers? Panebianco banged four of them in the second half, with each shot seeming bigger than the last. We're not talking about swinging it to the open man to knock down a shot. These were catch & shoot treys where he came flying off screens and sent high-arching shots over a defender's hand stretched out in his face. And they were deep. He was already shooting behind the college 3-point line at Buff State, but the last two were even well beyond that.
When it was all over, Panebianco had scored 34 points, to go with eight rebounds and three steals, and Jamestown was headed to states.
"His performance in the Athena game was just unbelievable" said Drake. "I honestly can't remember an individual performance that special on that big of a stage". "Anytime Athena made a run, he responded. A couple of the shots he hit were deep threes with players on him".
One week later at Glens Falls, Panebianco scored a game-high 31 points, dished three assists, grabbed three rebounds, and had a pair of steals in a Class AA state semifinal victory over a Union-Endicott team that had knocked off the mighty Mount Vernon to get there. He had carried his team all the way to the state championship game.
In the NYSPHAA Class AA state final, the Red Raiders were physically and athletically overmatched by the eventual champ, Green Tech. It didn't stop Panebianco from battling. He finished with a team-high 20 points in the final and scored his team's last five points, including a 3-pointer that pulled Jamestown within two points with just 13 seconds left in the game.
He had made an impression at Glens Falls. A spot on the NYSPHAA Class AA Tournament Team after scoring 51 points in two games and a place in the record books. Panebianco broke the Class AA tournament record for 3-pointers when the last one went in.
Over his final 13 games of the season, which included three games against Class AA finalist Clarence, Williamsville North for a share of the league, Class A state finalist East High of Rochester, and six playoff games, Panebianco averaged 24.5 points per game. It surely would have been even higher if not for his unselfish four-point game on senior night.
I'm not sure if his accomplishments have ever been equaled before. I certainly can't remember anyone from Section VI ever scoring over 30 points in back-to-back games in the Class AA regional and state semifinal. I also can't remember watching a player quite like Zack. One coach who is a friend of mine calls him the magician, because there's no other way to explain the things he makes happen.
"Zack is kind of a throwback player. He's deceptively athletic, has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and is always a step ahead of the opponent" Drake said.
He was a step ahead of his contemporaries as well - the player from WNY who turned in the best season in 2014, the Centercourt Player of the Year.