East Syracuse Aside from being gracious hosts of the annual Vince Celi Memorial Tournament, the East Syracuse-Minoa boys basketball team wanted to win the event, too.
But Auburn, one of the surprising early-season stories in the Class AA ranks, prevented the Spartans from that happy ending, the Maroons rallying late in Friday's championship game to claim the title in a 73-66 decision.
On both sides, it was a well-played contest, but what cost ESM was its inability to take advantage of a strong first half and build a bigger margin.
Back-to-back baskets from Eyan Underwood and Jah-meer McDuffie helped the Spartans grab a 17-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, and that advantage grew to 35-26 late in the half as DeShaun Gorman hit on three consecutive field goals.
ESM had a chance to stretch the lead to double digits in the last minute - but instead, Zach Charles and Trent Ward converted for Auburn, the latter a 3-pointer that pushed the Maroons within four, 35-31, going into halftime.
Though baskets from Eyan Underwood and Jeff McDuffie made it 39-31 early in the third quarter, Auburn erased that deficit and, with Ward's 3-pointer late in the period, inched in front 46-45.
From there, and deep into the final period, it remained tight, and ESM appeared to catch a break when Ward, eventually named tournament MVP with his 20 points in the final, went to the bench with his fourth foul with 5:56 left.
But Auburn didn't panic. Instead, fellow guard Kareef Rufus took charge. His 3-poitner with 4:20 left broke a 54-54 tie and gave the Maroons the lead for good, and Rufus struck again from beyond the arc with 1:39 to play.
That basket made it 66-60, and ESM, hampered by two-for-seven free-throw shooting in the fourth quarter, never got closer than four points again. Rufus earned nine of his 12 points in that last frame.