Improving juniors Buford, Gifford lead Poly Prep past Dalton

When Poly Prep was struggling earlier this season, Bill McNally remained confident. After losses to rival Collegiate, he still felt the future – the immediate future – was bright.

Last Wednesday night was a prime example.

The Blue Devils gained revenge against Dalton, relying on talented junior forwards Alex Buford and Bradley Gifford in a thrilling, 69-64 victory on the Upper East Side on Feb. 17.

“I have very high expectations for them and what I think they can be,” McNally said of his dynamic duo who have each received Patriot and Ivy League interest. “So I expect them to be able to do those things, and they’re getting better.”

Buford, a 6-foot-4 wing, scored a team-high 23 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minutes, and Gifford added 13 points and an imposing presence in the paint. The two, who weren’t at their best in the first meeting with Dalton (16-4, 8-4 Ivy League), a 46-37 loss, saved their best for crunch time.

“We couldn’t stomach losing two games to them,” said the bruising 6-foot-5 Gifford.

Before his clutch trifecta, Buford stripped Michael Salik from behind, moments after missing a running layup. Gifford drilled a 18-footer to extend Poly Prep’s two-point lead to four with 30 seconds remaining, a momentum-turning shot in an afternoon full of them.

“They gave me the ball and I couldn’t let my team down so I had to make the shot,” he said.

Dalton, led by four-year seniors Hunter Cotton and Julian Pavlin (game-high 25 points), got off to a quick start. The Tigers led, 25-16, before the Blue Devils (12-9. 8-3) found their groove. They scored 31 of the game’s next 41 points. Buford caught fire, scoring 13 points on the run on a combination of jump shots, driving layups and offensive rebounds.

Poly Prep, in fact, led 37-25 at one point in the third quarter, turning the once raucous gym quiet. Dalton, however, wouldn’t wilt. Pavlin scored 15 consecutive Dalton points and the Tigers got even at 58 on with 3:22 remaining.

“I thought we showed a lot of character coming back,” Dalton coach Teddy Frischling said. “We got to get better in late-game situations, execute plays down the stretch.”

Frischling was referring to the final few possessions. Cotton was called for a charge and Pavlin missed a 3-pointer. Gifford and Buford, meanwhile, executed. Buford stripped Salik and hit the 3-pointer, then made two free throws while Gifford drilled a clutch jumper.

“It’s good to have multiple weapons,” McNally said.

Indeed, with point guard Len Chenfeld scoring 15 points in tandem with the production of the two junior forwards, it was difficult for Dalton to know where to commit. Plus, sophomore Anthony Reyes contributed 11 points, mostly from the perimeter. Buford and Gifford are versatile, able to score inside and out.

“It’s a three-headed monster, me and him and Len,” Buford said. “We’re that much better when all of us are clocking and it opens stuff for other guys.”

Since Collegiate has knocked off both teams twice, the game was more important for NYSAIS seeding purposes than a division title. It was also significant because the two foes could meet again in the state tournament.

“Emotionally, it was all over the place,” Frischling said of the back-and-forth affair. “Obviously, the teams are pretty close, pretty even. Hopefully, at some point, we see them again. It’s gonna come down to making plays down the stretch.”

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