Although they may not be called the Wildcats, Cougars, or anything else of the feline variety, it certainly would have been more than apropos for Lancaster Catholic to have such a nickname given the way in which they persevered past Littlestown on Thursday night, truly receiving at least a second life this season down in the depths of Adams County.
On that night which saw the Crusaders make the lengthy 50-mile trip westward to tangle with a grossly under-seeded team in the Thunderbolts who entered the postseason as the #4 team in the District 3-4A playoffs, Lancaster Catholic found themselves staring upward at their hosts as the ‘Bolts raced out to an early 19-4 advantage to knock the Crusaders back on their heels and them some at the outset of the contest. But as was to be expected when talking about a program that contains the unquestioned pedigree such as Lancaster Catholic, the Crusaders responded to the task at hand by proceeding to rattle off a workmanlike effort, slowly but surely trimming the Littlestown lead down to a much more manageable size as the game moved along. And wouldn’t you know it, not only were the Crusaders able to answer the dinner bell by authoring a dramatic turnaround, they would win going away on Thursday evening, effectively throwing a very good Littlestown team into the consolation bracket after their 60-51 triumph.
For their troubles, it seemed rather fitting for the Crusaders’ reward come in the form of a semifinal round home game with a trip to Wednesday night’s 4A finale at the Giant Center hanging in the balance. The only thing was, their opponent waiting for them on the opposite bench would prove to be one the best programs in all the vaunted Mid-Penn Conference, the Susquehanna Township Indians.
When trying to assess this year’s District 3-4A boys’ playoff bracket, there were a few notable things that seemed to stick out. But perhaps none more so than Susquehanna Township entering the mix as the #8-seed by virtue of their 11-11 overall record. And as was to be expected, the Indians proceeded to muddy-up the bracket projections by turning in one of the biggest upsets thus far in the District 3 playoffs when they sent top-seeded Eastern York spiraling into the consolation bracket after a nail-biting 63-61 victory on the road Thursday evening as well.
So, with likely had to feel like all the momentum in the world following their most recent dramatic performance put together against one of the YAIAA’s best in the Golden Knights, the Indians found themselves back on the road once again on Monday night when they headed to the Red Rose City with the opportunity to crash another party when they squared off against the mighty Crusaders in Lancaster Catholic’s hallowed house.
And whether it be the magic conjured up by playing underneath the many brackets hanging proudly above their home floor, or simply just a team destined for greatness, the Crusaders were able to turn away a very game Susquehanna Township squad to advance to the District 3-4A title game.
In a semifinal game such as the one contested on Monday night, landing the first punch is always that chore that serves of the upmost importance. In that regard, check and mate for Lancaster Catholic.
While the Crusaders’ pressure defense was certainly getting the Indians as evidenced by the handful of turnovers and missed shots put forth by Susquehanna Township in the early going, Lancaster Catholic was able to jump out to the early 7-2 advantage following a smooth pullup jumper cashed in by 6’5 senior forward, Dwyane Caine, with three minutes having expired off the first quarter clock. From there, the Crusaders’ lead eventually ballooned to as many as seven following a nifty turnaround flip shot sunk by 5’11 senior guard, Johnny Besecker, making it an 11-4 Lancaster Catholic cushion with 3:35 left to play in the first. And as the first quarter clock eventually wound down, the Crusaders’ lead would swell up to eight as a hard-nosed put-back at the cup thanks to the efforts of 6’0 senior guard, Justin Baker, gave the homestanding Crusaders the 13-5 lead heading into the second stanza.
With the Crusaders clearly riding the crest of momentum following their emphatic first quarter performance, time was of essence if Susquehanna Township wished to make a game of things and not Lancaster Catholic get too far out in front. Well, right at that very moment, Susuqehanna Township junior guard Makhi Jones proceeded to get loose and drain a timely triple for the Indians’ effort, effectively launching a counter-attack to halt Lancaster Catholic’s early mojo.
Unfortunately for the visitors from Harrisburg, the momentum generated by the Jones triple would prove to be short-lived.
In the minutes that followed, Lancaster Catholic proceeded to put their foot down to the floorboard and create even more distance between themselves and their guests. In fact, after a personal 4-0 charge put together thanks to Justin Baker, the Crusaders’ lead grown to nine at 17-8, with Susquehanna Township forced to call a timeout in the midst of the Baker-generated storm as 5:06 still remained to be played in the first half.
The only thing was, the Lancaster Catholic lead would only get bigger as the second quarter wore on.
Immediately following the Baker buckets, 6’6 junior forward, David Kamwanga, tallied a nice flip inside from point-blank range, giving the Crusaders their first double digit lead of the night at 19-8 as 3:40 was now showing on the first half clock.
Though to their credit, ‘Hanna would continue to press on, eventually cutting the Lancaster Catholic lead down to a much more manageable seven-point deficit at 22-15 following a key put-back from 6’3 junior forward, Dola Adeniyi.
Yet that would prove to be all the closer Susquehanna Township would get for the remainder of the first half, as the Crusaders were able to put together a 5-0 run to close the opening sixteen minutes, heading off into the locker room with their lead standing at a dozen, 27-15.
But try as they might, Lancaster Catholic soon discovered that the task of forcing Susquehanna Township to fold up the tents and head home with putting up much of a fight would be an assignment far easier said than actually done.
In fact, after a 3-ball dialed up 6’3 sophomore forward Malik Murphy and nice put-back by way of Dola Adeniyi, the Indians suddenly found themselves back within seven again at 31-24 near the midway point of the third quarter.
And while the Crusaders saw their lead slowly but surely get whittled away thanks to the persistent efforts put together by the Indians throughout the early stages of the third frame, Lancaster Catholic would have nothing to do with the margin getting any closer than that as the third quarter marched on.
To be sure, after a gorgeous slip to the tin off a nice offensive set which saw Dwayne Caine become the beneficiary of the easy bucket, the Lancaster Catholic lead had suddenly swelled back up to double figures at 35-24 with three minutes still left to go in the third. From there, the Crusaders’ cushion would be jump back up by a baker’s dozen as a pullup jumper nailed by 6’1 junior guard, Denzel Kabasele, put the white-clad Crusaders up 37-24, before the third quarter would end for good with Lancaster Catholic holding serve at 37-26 with eight minutes standing between them and another trip to Hershey.
With a championship riding on the line, even the strongest of Lancaster Catholic proponents had to feel just a bit unsettled knowing full-well that a Susquehanna Township comeback effort was likely in the cards with the game now officially entering into “do or die” territory.
Sure enough, the Indians came out of the fourth quarter huddle with a vengeance.
For much of the night, the Crusaders had largely been able to keep the Indians at arm’s-length for much of the evening, never truly letting things get into a truly precarious position for the home team. But as the start of the fourth quarter soon proved, all bets were off for the remainder of the night.
After a 3-ball splashed in by senior guard Jordan McCraw, a hoop plus the harm by way of Will Folk, and a fearless put-back at the tin from Dola Adeniyi, Susquehanna Township found themselves back within a half dozen at 39-33 within the blink of an eye near the midway mark of the final period.
Yet with the tide slowly turning against the Crusaders, Devin Atkinson certainly had other ideas as the 5’11 sophomore guard took off on a fearless take to the rack for the immediate answer, effectively keeping the Indians’ charge at bay at least for the time being.
The key phrase there? Time being.
With their dreams of playing at the Giant Center slowly slipping away right before their eyes, Jordan McCraw was to drain an absolutely enormous corner 3-ball for Susquehanna Township, bringing the Indians back within four at 45-41 with just over one-minute left to be played.
But they weren’t done there.
After seeing the Crusaders come away empty-handed on their ensuing offensive possession, Mekhi Jones was there for a cold-blooded pullup jumper to bring the Indians within a pair at 45-43.
That was when the game made a sharp, and dramatic left turn.
With the Crusaders holding the slim two-point advantage and the ‘Hanna faithful making the Lancaster Catholic gymnasium seemingly come apart at the seams given their decibel levels of expressed excitement, Denzel Kabasele made a bee-line for the bucket with intentions of finishing with a hard-nosed deuce to the cup. Unfortunately for everyone in attendance, Kabasele would go down hard on the play, eventually having to be carted off after a roughly ten-minute stoppage of play with the game still up for grabs as a result of his cruel mishap.
So, with both teams having to press the reset button after seeing a fellow warrior being escorted away from the playing surface after giving nothing short of their all, free throws were still left to be shot for someone in a Lancaster Catholic uniform given Kabasele’s untimely exit.
Enter Devin Atkinson.
Shooting free throws with the game on the line is difficult. Shooting free throws with a championship on the line can be daunting. Shooting free throws with both of those elements ringing true when coupled with a lengthy stoppage of play? Well, whatever adjective you chose to put there, that was the obstacle placed in front of the 5’11 sophomore guard.
The only problem was, no one seemed to tell that to Atkinson.
With the poise and moxie of someone who had appeared to be well-accustomed to this stage a time or two before, Atkinson proceeded to split the offering at the charity stripe, putting the Crusaders back up by three with 37 ticks left to go.
Yet Susquehanna Township would simply refuse to budge.
After Atkinson’s second free throw bounced off the rim, the Indians took off in full gallop down the floor, eventually seeing their offensive possession capped off with an all-important bucket, as Jordan McCraw finished off a sensational reverse through the Lancaster Catholic tall trees, slicing the Crusaders’ lead down to the slimmest of margins at 46-45 with now 20 seconds left to go.
Shortly after Lancaster Catholic was able to navigate past the subsequent Susquehanna Township press, Johnny Besecker found himself back at the foul line with the opportunity to add to his already stellar night of work. And right on cue, the Crusaders’ unflappable senior guard responded to the challenge by sinking both attempts, putting the Crusaders up by three at 48-45 with 12.2 left to play. On the night, Besecker would go to finish with game-high scoring honors by posting a 17-point effort.
After witnessing Lancaster Catholic wisely opt to play the foul game in the late-game situation while holding on to the three-point lead, the Indians proceeded to fire up quick triple after the out of bounds side-out in hopes of knocking down a trifecta before the Crusader troops closed in to commit another foul, still not yet in the bonus. While the Indians would indeed get their desired shot up from behind the arc, it would be woefully short as a result, as the defensive rebound ended up in the capable hands of Besecker yet again. So, with the Crusaders now just 3.8 seconds away from making good on yet another trip to the Giant Center to compete for District 3 gold, Besecker was once again unphased by the pressure, calming knocking down a game-deciding free throw to rightly put the Crusaders back in Hershey as Lancaster Catholic would go on to claim a hard-fought 49-45 victory over Susquehanna Township in the semifinal round on Monday evening.
“I really wish it wouldn’t have finished that way to be honest with you,” a relieved Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas quipped following his team’s close triumph over the Indians. (Susquehanna Township) made a run and we had some breakdowns there with some of press break stuff. Simple stuff like being strong with the ball,” Klazas said. “We say, ‘Chin it’ a lot. I think it was three possessions in a row where they stole it right from us.”
“But, we play made the plays when we had to,” said Klazas.
And because they were able to do exactly that, the Crusaders once again find themselves in that all too familiar territory of playing for District 3 supremacy once again.
“Coach Rudy made the comment to me where of the nine losses that we have, all but one of those teams is still alive and playing right now,” the fourteen-year Lancaster Catholic head man said of the information conveyed to him by one of his loyal assistants.
“Our schedule was probably as tough as I can remember it ever being,” Klazas went on to add. “Learning from some of those losses was beneficial to us. I think with the injuries that we’ve had, it’s given opportunity to other kids. We say we are ‘13 as 1.’ Guys are going to have step into different roles at different times.”
“Justin Baker is not a scorer for us, but he made some huge plays for us. He finished buckets and defended the heck out of Will Folk and really frustrated him,” the Crusader coach stated proudly when mentioning his Swiss Army knife of a senior who has embraced and thrived in his various roles this season.
As a result, Baker, Klazas, and the rest of the Crusaders find themselves with a Wednesday night date in Hershey against a formidable foe in Bishop McDevitt for the opportunity to bring a gold trophy back home with them. Yet had it not been for the remarkable turnaround that the Crusaders were able to put together on Thursday night in Littlestown, all would have been for not at this stage in the game. So, needless to say, the game against the Thunderbolts is most certainly one that is lost on Coach Klazas.
“It was actually addressed to the team in the pregame,” said the Crusaders’ coach. “I think it was really something that opened our eyes and gave us some confidence. We got down early, but (his players) went out and executed and bought in to everything we thought would give us the best chance to win,” Klazas remarked. “They were really, really excited after that game.”
“I think you want to be playing your best of ball this time of year. Obviously, some of those losses we had earlier in the year hurt a little bit, but we were fortunate enough to win the section title,” said Klazas. “It would’ve been nice to have been more competitive in the league-play, but hopefully we’re playing our best ball right now with a shot to win a district title.”
NEXT UP: Speaking of that district title, Lancaster Catholic now moves on for the right to square off with Bishop McDevitt for all the marbles in District 3-4A play when the battle of the Crusaders gets underway with an 8pm tip time set for Wednesday night at the Giant Center.
Meanwhile, for Susquehanna Township, the Indians now must regroup and right the ship when too play on Wednesday night in the 3rd place game on the road at Berks Catholic.