Cardiac Crusaders Strike Again As Nevin Roman’s Last-Second Triple Pushes Lancaster Catholic Past Riverside, Into PIAA-3A Quarterfinal Round
Written by: Andy Herr on Thursday, March 18th, 2021
Lancaster Catholic 50 Riverside 47
First Round of PIAA 3A Boys
March 17, 2021
For most teams, just making the postseason is an accomplishment worthy of celebrating. Fair enough. Then again, not everyone is exactly Lancaster Catholic either.
Long established as one of the Lancaster-Lebanon League’s premier franchises, seeing the Crusaders succeed on the hardwood –on both the boys’ and girls’ level—is something so common around these parts that it is almost taken for granted. After all, when you’ve made your fellow divisional foes essentially pay you the basketball equivalent of rent no matter which section of the L-L League you’ve found yourself residing in at any given time and you’ve also won three out of the last five Division 3 titles as well, you essentially are the standard of excellence in which everyone else locally is trying to measure up to. Oh yeah, being able to fall back on an illustrious history that includes a perfect, state championship season not even two decades ago isn’t a bad starting block either.
With all that said, Lancaster Catholic has made winning so common in recent years that any of the aforementioned accomplishments –save for a state title perhaps—is almost to be expected each and every year for the purple and gold. Well, wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what has transpired this year yet again true to form.
For most squads, graduation can be especially cruel. Not at Catholic though. No, it always seems to be more of a reload than a rebuild. Granted, while the Crusaders would start the year without the size and athleticism of Denzel Kabasele, the vastly underrated and underappreciated services of Trey Wells down low, before adding in of course the many talents of David Kamwanga –the Crusaders’ hero from last year who hit the final shot of the district title game at Giant Center to beat Bishop McDevitt—there were clearly some holes left in Catholic’s cupboard. Nevertheless, head coach Joe Klazas and his team responded admirably to the challenge as they so often do, going on win L-L Section Four, making it to the semifinal round of the league playoffs, before eventually finishing things off with another District 3 title — in back-to-back fashion no less –capping off a memorable 2020-21 campaign up until this point.
So, with all of those attributes already stored away coupled with the miniscule PIAA state playoff field due to COVID-19, the Crusaders looked up and suddenly found themselves just four wins away from another state championship once the tournament got underway on the Crusaders’ home floor on Wednesday night just outside of Lancaster city. Not only that, but you best believe that Catholic was entering the tournament as a team on a clear and direct mission given that the Crusaders were among the handful of unlucky schools that had their ongoing 2020 state tournament dreams dashed due to the onset of the global pandemic last March.
However, the other thing about this year’s version of the state tourney field? The fact that it was extended to district champions only. Suffice to say, Catholic’s opening round game figured to be anything but a proverbial layup when they hosted the Riverside Vikings, an undersized but extremely feisty group hailing from Scranton who would not be intimidated by such a tall task given that the Vikings were champions in their own right after their District 2 tournament title last week at the hands of Wyoming Seminary.
As it turned out though, whether Lancaster Catholic was able to call upon the ghosts of Crusaders’ past inside their home venue in order to help will them to victory or not, it would be a page out of their most recent history which eventually helped push them over the top on Wednesday night. You know, the one that has to do with frantic finishes.
As if to expected in an opening round state playoff game, the jitters and nerves for each side seemed to be running rampant early on. In fact, not even the Crusaders playing within their friendly confines made them immune to the early butterflies as the Catholic and Riverside took their turns at trading turnovers and missed bunnies at the cup with one another in the initial few minutes. Finally, once both teams seemed to settle into a groove, it would be the visitors from the town of Taylor who would be able to find their shooting stroke first as a timely 3-ball courtesy of Riverside’s Josh Godlewski trimmed the Crusaders’ lead down to the slimmest of margins at 6-5 with 3:20 remaining in the opening stanza. From there, it would be the hosts turn to dial long distance as a Mason Moore triple nearly two minutes later upped the Lancaster Catholic lead to 9-5 before Riverside eventually closed the gap back down to a penny in the waning moments by way of another 3-ball –this one from Francis Antoniacci—sending this back-and-forth affair into the second stanza with Lancaster Catholic leading, 11-10.
Needless to say, the District 2 champions remained steadfast in their pursuit of overtaking command of the scoreboard once the second quarter began. Case in point, a sweet spot-up jumper sunk by Antoniacci, a bucket which gave the Vikings their first lead of the contest at 12-11 mere seconds into the second frame.
Over the course of the next few minutes though, Lancaster Catholic put their foot down.
Sparked by a pair of a buckets by 5’10 junior guard, Mason Moore, the Crusaders were able to regain the lead at 17-14 after two minutes and change had then elapsed off the second quarter clock. Speaking of a Lancaster Catholic catalyst, there was none bigger who aided in the Crusaders’ effort in the second quarter than 6’2 junior forward, Ryan Koltunovich. With his team still yet unable to gain any considerable breathing room between themselves and their guests, Koltunovich was able to tally a pair of key buckets in successive fashion, from both the inside and outside, all of which forced Riverside’s hand into calling a timeout and regroup while staring up at a 23-16 deficit with 3:27 left before the intermission.
After the timeout however, Riverside was able to rise up and mount a critical late-half charge to keep Lancaster Catholic well within their sights.
Suffice to say, as so many Lancaster Catholic opponents would have undoubtedly liked to have chime in and explained the severity of the situation to the Riverside crew, the Vikings were just fine navigating the choppy waters on their own accord over the final three minutes and change. To start things off, the Vikings needed to accumulate defensive stops. Well, once that box was emphatically checked off, the assignment then went over to the offensive end of things with the objective of trying to whittle the Crusaders’ lead down to size bit by bit. In that regard, Riverside deserved a gold star for their collective efforts in that area as well considering how a much-needed triple splashed in by senior guard, Michael Rickert, trimmed Catholic’s lead down to a half dozen at 27-21 shortly thereafter. Then, with the Crusaders knocked back on their heels somewhat following the Rickert trey, the Vikings were able to add three more right before the half, albeit in the most unorthodox of fashions. Granted, while most half court heaves right before the first half buzzer almost always amount to nothing more than a glorified exercise, Riverside’s attempt right before the second quarter horn proved far more fruitful. After snatching down the defensive rebound, a Vikings’ outlet pass found its way into the hands of Brandon Reed before the Riverside senior guard was able to rise and fire while getting fouled in the process, sending him to the charity stripe where he promptly knocked down all three in the offering with 0.8 left before the recess, effectively sending both squads into their respective locker rooms with Lancaster Catholic owning the 27-24 advantage.
At the start of the third quarter, Lancaster Catholic came out hot.
In fact, on the Crusaders’ opening trip of the second half, Lancaster Catholic’s Ross Conway was able to hit from bonus distance to get the third quarter proceedings underway, upping the Crusaders’ lead right back to six at 30-24. That said, the good mojo proved to be short-lived considering the Vikings came right back into the thick of things thanks to a pair of back-to-back buckets from senior Todd Monahan, making it a 32-28 Crusaders’ buffer, before a strong take to the rack by fellow senior, Brandon Reed, made it a two-point affair at 34-32 in favor of Catholic with 3:30 left to go in the third. Speaking of Reed, he was clearly the straw which had stirred the Riverside drink all night long, a feat best evidenced by his game-high scoring output of 17 points on the evening.
Yet even when Lancaster Catholic had probably felt as if they had finally been able to solve the Vikings’ puzzle, such as when a Devin Atkinson put-back put Catholic in front 37-32 with 2:15 remaining in the third, Riverside simply refused to budge. For that, look no further than Francis Antoniacci’s 3-ball shortly thereafter which knotted things back up at 37-37. Then, with the visitor’s snowball rolling downhill at an alarming rate, the Vikings were able to regain the lead once more at 39-37 following a Reed take to the cup before Riverside was eventually able to head into the final frame with not only the lead at 41-37, but all the momentum as well.
To go back to our earlier topic of discussion, Lancaster Catholic’s most recent history has been one that has been anything but tame and mundane. Even going back to last season, the Crusaders’ flair for the dramatics is likely unparalleled anywhere else in the state of Pennsylvania. So, in many ways, it was probably no surprise whatsoever to see the Crusaders snarled into a nip and tuck affair with the game heading into its final minutes.
Generally, the one who has his fingerprints all over the game for the Crusaders is Lancaster Catholic’s 6’0 senior guard, Devin Atkinson. Sure enough, here he was again with the game hanging by a thread. This time, with his team trailing by a pair, Atkinson was able to author yet another trademark bucket inside, making things all even at 41-41. However, following the Atkinson bunny, Riverside was able to retaliate right back and fire in a pair of buckets thanks to the handiwork of Michael Rickert and Brandon Reed respectively, a key exchange which put the Vikings up 45-41. However, undaunted by the recent events which had just transpired, Lancaster Catholic’s Mason Moore and Ross Conway were able to offer up two huge buckets of their own over the next few possessions which had successfully trimmed Riverside’s lead down to just one at 46-45.
In a game such as this where the stakes are raised exponentially and nearly every play can be analyzed with a fine-tooth comb, there are certain moments in which an opening round state playoff game for example can ultimately be defined by. In that regard, take Riverside’s ensuing possession following the Conway bucket. There, with the Vikings seeing their lead standing up by the tiniest of margins, a Vikings’ 3-ball went halfway down before somehow coming back up and out, a bucket which would have made it a four-point Riverside lead with time of the essence shall we say. However, after seeing no further damage inflicted upon them given the three-point try which had just rimmed out, Lancaster Catholic came right down the floor and saw Nahjier Aikens get fouled with 1:49 left. So, with the 5’8 junior guard toeing the charity stripe, Aikens was able to make good on the front-end of his one-and-one attempt, making it a 47-45 Lancaster Catholic lead. Sure, while their earlier offensive possession could have likely served as a dagger to the Crusaders’ collective psyche which did not come to pass, Riverside wasn’t about to let Catholic get off the hook that easy considering Brandon Reed’s take to the hole with 1:20 remaining tied things back up at 47-47.
And you wouldn’t you know it, here we were again. Death, taxes, and Lancaster Catholic somehow yet again in the throes of an absolute white-knuckle, nail-biting postseason affair.
With the score knotted up and the Crusaders having the possession following the aforementioned Reed bucket, Lancaster Catholic opted to go with the stall-ball method. While dribbling out the clock, it was apparent that the Crusaders didn’t want to Riverside to have the opportunity at having the last say, even if the Vikings would somehow be trailing in such a situation. So, after seeing nothing there for the taking against the Vikings’ defense, Lancaster Catholic called a timeout with 17.3 seconds left to play to draw up one final play.
Granted, while whatever was telestrated on the grease board likely didn’t pan out in actuality, rest assured that Lancaster Catholic, nor Nevin Roman especially, will have any long-lasting disappointments in how things ultimately turned out.
With the Crusaders’ final offensive possession appearing to be stagnant against the defense employed by Riverside, Lancaster Catholic’s 5’10 senior guard, largely held in check all night long up until that point, authored the biggest play of his scholastic career. While dribbling and trying to keep an eye out for either an open teammate or a flash of daylight that he could perhaps take advantage of, Roman took his matters into his own hands. To his credit, it proved to be the wisest decision of all as Roman saw just enough daylight before deciding to rise up and fire in a cold-blooded, tough-as-nails, gutsy (insert any other clutch phrase of your choosing here) trifecta from the elbow-extended to beat the final buzzer put the exclamation point on Lancaster Catholic’s last-second victory over an extremely talented and pesky Riverside group, 50-47. Not only that, but the other positive consequence that came packaged to Lancaster Catholic once Roman’s bucket tickled through the twine? Assuredly the fact that it put the Crusaders just three wins away now from hoisting what they hope is another state championship banner.
“I think that’s such a benefit of being at a school that is so much smaller. Our kids are together so much much and they have a lot of trust in each other,” a relatively business as usual and low-key Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas said moments after seeing his team pull another one out of the fire yet again when asked if he could explain how this Catholic team continues to find a way to win, even when the cards seemed stacked against them at times, such as they did at times on Wednesday night. “We can talk X’s and O’s and all that stuff, but when the five that are on the floor and the eight that are in the corner on the bench don’t have trust in what we’re doing and don’t have trust that we can execute things, we’ll struggle at times,” said Klazas. “We talked at halftime how it’s a collective responsibility for us to go out there and do what we have to do to have a good chance to win. We just sold them on, ‘We have trust that if you execute on both ends, we’re going to have a good chance to win.’”
Not only that, but perhaps the most important selling point of all that Klazas and his staff have successfully implanted on this group, particularly in this day and age of instant gratification? Without question the fact that the whole sum of the Crusaders’ unit is far greater than anyone standing alone on their own individually.
“It’s so tough as a coach when you decide to keep a 13-man roster. It’s really hard to keep everybody happy,” Klazas acknowledged. “We talk about that all the time how you never know when your moment will come. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We talked to Nevin (Roman) a couple times, ‘Hey, your time will come.’ It certainly did tonight. We drew something up to try and sell Ross (Conway), expecting (Riverside) to go to him. Nevin was our secondary, he was open, and without hesitation he knocked that down,” said Klazas going back to the final, game-winning set. “Going back to our team of 13, Nevin and Curtis Cannon have battles at the end of practice every day,” the Crusaders’ coach added. “It was a three-point, face-to-face shooting contest yesterday and that’s really how it ended with those guys knocking down 3’s on each other, so the timing of it was pretty perfect.”
Sure, while it’d be easy to say that Lancaster Catholic’s most recent string of heart-stopping wins over the last year or so on the biggest of stages can be chalked up to nothing more than something along the basic lines of “good luck,” Coach Klazas and others see something much more tangible than that: A winning culture that only exists within the varsity team locker room itself, but throughout all ranks of the Crusaders’ feeder programs. Get that on firm and level-footing and you’re sure to see a positive return on investment for both the short and long-term future.
“I’ll give a lot of credit to Rich (Hinnenkamp), our AD, with the schedule he had for us the last couple years. It was pretty darn challenging,” Klazas said. “Playing the Wilson’s, Susquehanna Township’s, Bishop McDevitt’s. You know, everyone wants to make the playoffs, but we have (the program) where not only do we want to make it there, but we want to compete in there and give ourselves chances. For these seniors, the six that we have, there’s a lot of fight in them to extend their season. For the seven underclassmen, it’s extending (this season) to give themselves more chances to give them experiences to try and extend things in their senior years,” Klazas remarked. “Having and winning these state games has been big for us because I definitely think that not only has it been good for the kids and the school, but the youth that are coming up through. It’s awesome with coaching here this long and hearing from families that I’ve coached in the past and players that have kids now that are very basketball-oriented. That’s a sign that I’m getting much older,” Klazas quipped before adding, “Who knows how long I’ll coach, but when I hear things like that, it’s certainly motivating for me to do this as long as I can.”
NEXT UP: Good news Coach Klazas and Crusader Nation. With your thrilling win over Riverside in the midweek, you earn the right to keep your season alive. That said, the Crusaders’ next challenge will be without a doubt the most challenging Lancaster Catholic has seen in years when the Crusaders load up and travel to Philadelphia on Saturday to match up with the perennial powerhouse of Math, Civics and Sciences at a site and time to be determined. To be sure, the Mighty Elephants have quickly established themselves as one of Philly’s most successful franchises, rubbing elbows with likes of Neumann-Goretti, Roman Catholic, and Imhotep Charter. And yes, while going up against one of the best brands located within one of the best basketball cities in the entire western hemisphere is a challenging task in and of itself, you can bet that the Crusaders will welcome and embrace the chance to come back home to the Red Rose city with a mammoth-sized triumph this weekend with them. After all, should they be able to corral the Elephants, the Crusaders will have yet another game back on their home floor next week. Should that come to pass, Catholic’s next victory would then put them in the state championship. And for a team that had their state tournament run end without their own doing last year, rest assured that Lancaster Catholic will take on any and all comers in any and all locations.
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