Oxford girls take aim at first ever state championship

Mar. 17—The Oxford girls basketball team will be hoping to make its most successful season in 20 years last one day longer on Saturday.

The Blackhawks will be taking on Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons in the Class D State Semifinals at Hudson Valley Community College at 10:45 a.m., just two wins away from claiming the school's first state championship.

The Section IV champs are coming off of a dominant 70-44 victory over Smithtown Christian in last Saturday's Regional Championship in Binghamton. It hasn't been the smoothest week leading up to the game, however. Like other schools in the area, Oxford dealt with a snow day plus a two-hour delay this past week, and needed to leave for Troy on Friday to stay at a hotel overnight for Saturday's early start.

But coach Chris Palmer said he's confident that his team will be ready.

"The practice week has been a little unusual but the girls are excited, ready to go," he said.

Oxford will be in store for a stern test from the Section II Champion Golden Knights (15-7) from Schenectady. Bishop Gibbons brings plenty of size and physicality as was evident in their 37-30 Regional Championship victory over Seton Catholic last weekend.

Palmer singled out Angelina Dietz as a three-point threat and Mia'Rose Wylie as a threat to penetrate inside. He said Saturday's game could be similar to the Sectional Championship Game against Cherry Valley-Springfield in that it will be size versus speed.

"They've got a couple of very big girls in the center," he said. "Their top two players average about 15 points a game, and they're in that 5'9", 5'8" range, good solid players, so they'll have decent size, whereas our tallest is probably around 5'7", 5'8". We'll be looking to make it a 94-foot game, they'll be looking to make it a half-court game."

For Oxford, they're likely to go as far as star senior Madalyn Barrows will take them. Just named the Section IV Class D Player of the Year by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York, Barrows is coming off a 26-point outing in the Regional Final, and has been the go-to player for the Blackhawks all year long.

"She gets a lot of attention from the opposing team's defense and still has been able to score," Palmer said of Barrows. "More importantly, she's been rebounding at around 10 rebounds a game matching up against some bigger girls."

Palmer added that the attention Barrows draws often opens things up for her teammates to the benefit of other key contributors like Kyla and Ella Kelsey and Naiomi Smith.

"A lot of what she does on offense, handling the ball, passing, tends to open things up for other girls, and the other girls are really stepping up," he said. "Making open shots, getting to the right spot, getting into position to score as well. This is her fifth year on varsity, averaging right around 20 points per game, very close to 10 rebounds, defensively getting three steals, three or four assists, doing a little bit of everything."

Palmer said he and his team have been looking forward to this game since last season's opening round sectional loss to Moravia in the Class C tournament. Knowing that they would be returning every key contributor as well as moving down a class led him to believe that big things could be possible for 2022-23.

"We talked about this moment right at the end of last season, literally in the locker room after losing the sectional game to Moravia," he said. "We weren't losing anybody, we had everybody returning. We knew that we were going to be in Class D, and Class D has good competition but we knew that would be an avenue that we might be able to navigate."

Palmer pointed to an early-season win against South Kortright in the Edmeston Christmas Tournament as a sign of things to come. He also said key league wins against Sidney, Greene, and a 15-point comeback against Unatego helped shape the team into what it is now.

"Those are some landmark wins," he said. "But the expectation that we could get to this point really started the minute the season ended last year."

For a team that features seven seniors (Barrows, the Kelseys, Naiomi Smith, Taylor Smith, Kadence Gallo, and Bailey Chesebro), this run to the final four has been especially meaningful considering the Class of 2023 lost a large chunk of their high school careers to COVID. Making it all the way to Troy is just the cherry on top of what's been a years-long journey.

"We were looking through some old pictures recently and they've been around playing together for quite some time," Palmer said. "You lose a year to that COVID year which I think set everybody back for sure. They've been together a long time and I think it's just that much more exciting because these are the kids you grew up with, these are the people you've been around in school your whole life, and that's part of small-town basketball as well. It's a good group."

Palmer said he expects the Oxford faithful who have been there for every step of this team's journey to be out in full force once again on Saturday.

"I want to thank the community for the amount of support we've had since we've gone on this run," he said. "People are coming out of everywhere to support these kids. The kids have earned it and it's been a great experience for them."