For Lancaster-Lebanon League high school basketball fans, a quick glance at the calendar shows us that we are currently within the final days of January. In other words, the time of year when those old, familiar programs typically begin hitting their stride with the playoffs quickly approaching. And wouldn’t you know it, perhaps the bluest of blue-bloods was once again proving why they figure a force to be reckoned with in the postseason yet again. I’m of course referring to the Lancaster Catholic Crusaders.
While this year in the L-L produced a new landscape given the implementation of the five sections, Lancaster Catholic figured to be at or near the top of whatever division they were placed upon. As it turned out, the Crusaders were placed into the Section 4 fracas and as suspected, have not disappointed.
Coming into their Friday night affair down at Octorara, the Crusaders were looking like some of those storied teams of old. Entering the evening with an 8-1 league record, including a perfect showing thus far against their fellow Section 4 brethren, Lancaster Catholic was looking to keep things rolling as they roll head-first into what figures to be another successful postseason for this proud program. But even for all of their successes, Friday night’s trip to Chester County was not a time for the mighty Crusaders to rest on their laurels as a hungry Braves squad was eagerly awaiting their arrival given the 80-37 performance that Lancaster Catholic was able to lay upon Octorara two weeks ago.
And while it may not have ended up in the exactly the same dominating fashion as the game that had preceded it, Lancaster Catholic was once again able to navigate past their new adversaries on Friday night.
Early on, it was clear that either side was desperately looking for momentum as both the Braves and Crusaders had their early game efforts significantly hindered by cold shooting from the field. So, with the crux of the game most definitely up for grabs, Octorara’s supremely-gifted 6’6 sophomore Naji Hamilton saw his opportunity to take the game over. And take over he would.
While sparked by his yeoman’s work down on the defensive end, including one Lancaster Catholic possession which saw him both literally and figuratively swat away the Crusaders’ efforts in back-to-back fashion, the Braves’ talented big man would proceed to come right down the floor and knock down a smooth pullup jumper before following that up with a trifecta, culminating a run which put the home-standing Braves out in front at 9-4 with the opening quarter starting to wind down. And while Naji Hamilton was the one who had clearly brought the chips and drinks, Octorara 5’11 junior guard Brian James was there to keep the partying going with an old-fashioned three-point play, increasing the Braves’ lead up to eight at 12-4.
From that point on however, the remainder of the first quarter would tell a much different tale.
Despite the fact that Lancaster Catholic now found themselves in an early and quite possibly unexpected hole, the Crusaders proceeded to break out their shovels and promptly began digging out. Instrumental in the Crusaders’ cause was a pair of marvelous bunnies at the cup put home by Lancaster Catholic big man Trey Wells, as the Crusaders’ 6’6 junior center helped the visitors from Lancaster City claw back within six with the quarter nearing it’s final buzzer. But even with time winding down, that small window of opportunity would be more than ample for Andy Santiago to bury a trifecta, which the 5’10 senior was able to do, successfully narrowing the Crusaders’ deficit all the way back down to three at 14-11 just mere moments before the horn rang out.
To be sure, Lancaster Catholic’s final first quarter blitz had understandably knocked the Braves back on their heels somewhat considering that everything had transpired within what felt like the blink of an eye. But while speed may have been the name of the game for the latter parts of the opening stanza, speed, or lack thereof rather, would prove to set the tone for the opening minutes of the second period.
With both teams implementing a sagging zone attack against one another, both the Braves and Crusaders showed remarkable diligence in trying to make small, effective incisions into the opposition in hopes of finding a high percentage shot. As it turned out, over half of the quarter would be bathed in the theme of diligence as neither team was truly able to get a leg up on another throughout the first four minutes of the second period as evidenced by their shared, prolonged possessions. But once someone did make a move, it would prove to be Lancaster Catholic that would seize the baton and take off running as an emphatic two-handed dunk by 6’6 junior forward turned matchup nightmare, David Kamwanga, got the Crusaders back within a point at 17-16 with 3:30 left to go in the first half. On their next trip down, 6’0 sophomore guard Ross Conway was able to sink a timley 3-ball, giving the Crusaders the 19-17 advantage, their first lead since what had been the opening minutes of the contest.
And while Lancaster Catholic would see their late-half lead eventually swell up to four points, Naji Hamilton was on the scene for the ultimate silencer for Octorara by authoring a forceful one-handed tomahawk dunk, narrowing the Crusaders’ lead down to a pair at 21-19, which is where the count stood as both teams headed into their respective locker rooms to make the necessary in-game adjustments.
To put it mildly, the third quarter of Friday night’s affair would be a game of runs put forth between the two sides. Starting things off would be a 4-0 Lancaster Catholic charge, an early run that was capped off a by a sensational running of the floor from 6’5 senior forward Dwayne Caine, putting the purple-clad Crusaders up, 25-21.
From there, Octorara would retaliate right back.
Ignited by a 4-0 spurt in their own right, the Braves would be able to knot things back up at 25-25 shortly thereafter as an Alex Lantz finish at the cup made things all square once again with 5:30 left to go in the third.
But just when it may have seemed as though Octorara had finally solved the Lancaster Catholic riddle, the Crusaders immediately threw water on the Braves’ enraging fire as an impromptu 6-0 salvo, the last of which was capped off by a David Kamwanga bucket from point-blank range, allowed the Crusaders to get some much-needed breathing room at 31-25 over the ensuing few minutes.
Yet the calm and collected breathing for Lancaster Catholic would prove to be short-lived however as an immediate Octorara 3-ball, this one pumped in 5’11 junior guard Keith Lambert, would close the gap back down to three at 31-28 with 3:30 left in the third. In many ways, it may have seemed apropos that Lambert was able to pour in a timely triple for the Braves’ effort. After all, he would prove to be one of Octorara’s biggest sparkplugs throughout the entirety of the night, finishing the evening by tossing in a game-high 17-point effort.
Speaking of big nights, it could be argued that perhaps no one dressed in a Crusader uniform was more valuable to the Lancaster Catholic charge on Friday evening than that of Trey Wells. Time after time, critical moment after critical moment, the Crusaders’ junior big consistently and fearlessly had the back-breaking hoops to take the wind out of the Octorara sails. Sure enough, Wells would continue to be a 6’5 thorn in the Braves’ side in the waning moments of the third frame as back-to-back key buckets offered up from Wells extended the Lancaster Catholic lead out seven at 35-28.
And with the theme of the giants who roamed the paint largely being serving as one of the underlying themes throughout nearly the entire night, it seemed only fitting that none other than Naji Hamiton would have a say of things right then and there. That’s right. After yet another jam angrily stuffed home by the Braves’ sophomore big, his second dunk of the evening, Octorara had quickly trimmed the Lancaster Catholic lead back down to five at 35-30, before the dust would finally settle with the Crusaders in front, 37-30 at the conclusion of the third.
When talking about a program that is one steeped in tradition, such as the case with Lancaster Catholic, the Crusaders almost always never beat themselves. And wouldn’t you know it, the Crusaders’ overall basketball savvy and IQ of the game were on full display for all to see as the fourth quarter trudged along.
Without question, it had to be quite obvious for those in attendance to see that the Crusaders were well-aware of the time and score situation at the hand as they never played out of sorts or hurried. So, it probably should not have seemed like much of a surprise when the visitors kept consistently getting easy buckets at the tin down the stretch which rightly punished Octorara for defensive breakdowns. Never more was that the case than the easy offerings from Dwayne Caine and Ross Conway respectively throughout portions of the fourth quarter, the last of which put the Crusaders up by double digits at 47-38. And with their defense would more than doing the job down on the other end, it seemed right that a Lancaster Catholic senior would close things out, as a 4-4 finish at the charity stripe by way of Dwayne Caine helped Lancaster Catholic ultimately prevail past a wiry Octorara bunch, 52-47.
NEXT UP: While it may be understandable to perhaps see the Lancaster Catholic exhale with a sigh of relief given the fact that their last three Section 4 contests have seen the Crusaders prevail by a grand total of just nine points, now is certainly not the time to be taking it easy as Lancaster Catholic prepares for what is likely their stiffest test of the season yet to date when the Crusaders match up with a white-hot Lampeter-Strasburg squad back at home on Tuesday night in a highly-anticipated matchup between two squads headed to the league playoffs in just a few weeks.
On the other side, for Octorara, the Braves’ quest to reach the postseason in both the Lancaster-Lebanon League and District 3 playoff brackets took somewhat of a blow with their loss on Friday night at the hands of Lancaster Catholic. But even with a spot in the league playoffs now all but evaporated, the Braves still have plenty of work left to do in order to clinch a spot in districts in this their first year as a District 3-member institution. After all, as late as Friday night, Octorara still owned possession of the 9th and penultimate seed in the District 3-4A bracket should the playoffs begin today.
And whether you consider it fortunate or unfortunate depending on your point of view, the postseason still remains a few weeks away. With that in mind, it is vital that the Braves get back to the task at hand when they face arch-rival Pequea Valley back home on Saturday evening. From there, Octorara will finish their inaugural L-L League tour by hosting Donegal before on Tuesday evening before finishing with a triplet of roadtrips to Northern Lebanon, Penn Manor, and Lancaster Mennonite respectively.