Nisine Poplar’s Buzzer-Beating Trifecta Sinks Lancaster Catholic, Moves Math Civics And Sciences Into State Semifinals As Crusaders’ Incredible Journey Ends In PIAA-3A Quarterfinal Round

Written by: on Saturday, March 20th, 2021


Like anything else in life, the further and further you advance in any given situation where the ramifications are raised exponentially with each passing level, the challenges only grow steeper and steeper. In Lancaster Catholic’s case, that was something the Crusaders were about to find out first-hand on Saturday afternoon at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield in quarterfinal round of the PIAA-3A playoffs.

Sure, while those in the Crusaders’ camp were undoubtedly excited –and for good reason—in the moments immediately following Nevin Roman’s pullup jumper at the final gun in Catholic’s last game to beat Riverside, there certainly had to be a dramatic shift in focus and attention considering that the purple and gold were about to face their stiffest test in recent memory against Math Civics and Sciences hailing from the prestigious Philadelphia Public League in their very next outing. In fact, coming into the season, the Mighty Elephants had the distinction of being one of the six defending state champions of sorts considering that the 2020 state tournament never actually concluded as everyone recalls. Sure enough, not only due to that very same state championship two years ago, but also coupled with their previous success running amongst the ranks of PIAA-2A competition, MCS saw themselves bump up a level as the Elephants now have a 3A distinction to their name. Ironically, their opposition, Lancaster Catholic, was also a new member to the 3A club as well considering the Crusaders came into this season as last year’s District 3-4A champion. In short, Saturday’s state quarterfinal contest pitted two squads that had been as far apart as two different classification levels just one year ago. But don’t let the idea of some sort of drastic separation fool you. Math Civics and Sciences is a program that can compete with anyone within the state Pennsylvania. After all, just ask the Chester Clippers and Reading Red Knights about the Elephants’ possible exploits considering MCS dropped both of those contests on the road at the respective 6A powerhouses this season by a combined total of 11 points. Well, not only that, but it certainly doesn’t hurt matters when you have a future Miami Hurricane in your starting lineup such as Math Civics and Sciences does in utilizing the many talents of Nisine “Wooga” Poplar.

And in the end, not only would Lancaster Catholic would become all too familiar with Poplar’s gifts, they would also discover simultaneously that the higher the climb, the harder the pill is to swallow once the final buzzer sounds.

In the early going on Saturday, both teams struggled mightily in terms of finding some sort of offensive rhythm. Beset by a handful of turnovers each, both the Crusaders and Elephants remained stymied throughout the first few minutes. However, once they finally settled down, it would be MCS who would find their mojo as a steal and finish down on the other end courtesy of 6’2 junior guard, Jaheim Bethea, gave the Elephants the 8-2 lead. That said, Lancaster Catholic would get into a groove as well.

After spotting MCS the six-point gap, the Crusaders answered back admirably a pair of buckets from their senior duo of Jaxon Weyforth and Nevin Roman –Roman’s coming by way of a trifecta—erasing the MCS lead down to just one at 8-7 shortly thereafter. Then, Catholic kept the pedal down as evidenced by a Ross Conway triple which knotted things up at 10-10, before a Mason Moore take to the rack gave the Crusaders their first lead since the early going at 12-10. Later, in the most Lancaster Catholic of ways possible given the magical, almost death-defying way in which their postseason run has proven to be, Jack Engle proceeded to bank in a trey just moments before the first quarter horn, giving the Crusaders the 17-16 advantage heading into the second frame.

Once inside the second quarter, Lancaster Catholic remained unphased by the competition. In fact, the Crusaders ended up leading throughout a majority of the second eight minutes. However, following another Moore take to the cup which put the Crusaders up 28-25 with 2:30 left before the halftime break, the Elephants stormed back like, well, a herd of elephants quite frankly.

After seeing his team struggle to solve the riddle of Lancaster Catholic throughout much of the opening half on Saturday afternoon, Nisine Poplar decided to take matters into his own hands near the conclusion of the second period. Suffice to say, it proved to be a wise move as far as the Elephants’ collective effort was concerned as a timely Poplar trey gave MCS the lead back at 30-28, capping off a key 5-0 Elephants’ salvo. Not only that, but the 6’5 senior matchup nightmare proceeded to score the Elephants’ next four in succession after that, putting MCS up by what felt like a commanding 34-28 lead given the way in which most of the first half had played itself out. That said, Lancaster Catholic kept battling back once more in the face of the current MCS-driven tsunami as the Crusaders were able to cut the Elephants’ lead in half from there on out heading into the intermission, 34-31.

By this point, it became rather apparent that Lancaster Catholic had no intentions of letting Math Civics and Sciences run away and hide for the remainder of the afternoon. Case in point, a strong take plus the foul courtesy of Ross Conway which knotted things up as the Crusaders’ 6’3 senior forward’s old-school, three-point play made it a 36-36 affair with 6:25 left in the third period. On the afternoon, Conway continued to be the secret sauce residing inside the Crusaders’ lineup as the senior forward finished with a solid 14-point effort.

However, from that point on, Math Civics and Sciences answered right back with an emphatic haymaker in the face of Lancaster Catholic’s most recent charge.

After retaliating nicely in the form of a 4-0 blitz following the Conway three-point play, the Elephants kept pushing and pushing –both literally and figuratively—as a sweet behind-the-back pass from Poplar to Jaheim Bethea underneath put MCS up by their largest lead in quite some time, 44-36. Ironically, eight points would remain the difference following a forceful one-handed, leak out dunk by Poplar, now making it a 50-42 Elephants’ lead with the third quarter heading into its final few minutes.

But just as they had done so many times before, here came the Crusaders roaring right back into the thick of things.

Sparked by a Nevin Roman trey which cut the MCS lead down to five at 50-45, a trademark Devin Atkinson take to the cup on the next Catholic trip then followed suit, an exchange which had sliced the Elephants’ lead down to just three at 50-47. Then, following yet another Roman trifecta, Lancaster Catholic had somehow tied things back up at 50-50 which is where things would remain once the third quarter horn sounded. And not only that, but Roman’s late charge helped the Crusaders saunter into the final stanza with all the momentum that was contained within Cardinal O’Hara’s gym.

That said, the Elephants weren’t phased in the least given Catholic’s latest rebuttal.

In fact, Math Civics and Sciences was able to create some much-needed separation at the onset of the final period given their 6-0 spurt in the opening few minutes of the fourth. From there, the Elephants’ lead grew to as many as seven following a heady take to the tin courtesy of 6’1 sophomore, Chauncey Presley, making it a 59-52 MCS lead with six minutes still left to go.

By now though, the upset within the game itself would have been if Lancaster Catholic simply folded up the tents and started to prep for the hour-long drive home. Of course, led by senior leaders such as Devin Atkinson, the Crusaders weren’t about to do anything of the sort.

As he has done all season long, the Crusaders’ 6’0 utility knife continued to be a thorn in his opposition’s collective side. Sure enough, here came Atkinson once again as the senior proceeded to tally yet another critical three-point play, this time cutting the MCS lead down to just a pair at 59-57 just one-minute following what had been an earlier seven-point hole. On the day, Atkinson continued to be his same old reliable self, pumping in a team-high 17-point effort to best the Crusaders’ cause. Then, on the Crusaders’ ensuing offensive trip no less, a Jack Engle take to the cup made it a 59-59 affair before another Nisine Poplar dunk, his second of the contest, gave the lead right back to MCS on the Elephants’ next trip. From there, the Elephants’ lead ballooned to four following a Presley bucket in traffic, 63-59, before a timely reverse finish by Engle on Catholic’s next trip down the floor got the Crusaders back within two at 63-61.

At this stage of the game with the game clearly up for grabs, foul shooting and taking care of the orange-bound leather would be paramount for either side. Well, in that regard, both sides left some critical opportunities out on the table.

With Math Civics and Sciences staring down the barrel of a one-and-one attempt with just 44.2 seconds to go while nursing the 63-61 advantage, the front-end of the offering bounced off the back rim with Lancaster Catholic coming down with the defensive rebound. However, any mojo the purple-clad Crusaders may have had following the missed MCS freebie was relatively short-lived seeing as how the Crusaders then dealt with an untimely bout of the turnover bug their next trip down the floor, unable to inflict any sort of damage on MCS’ narrow lead.

So, with the Elephants having possession of the ball with 19.5 seconds remaining, it was Jaheim Bethea’s turn to toe the charity stripe. Needless to say, any sort of additional points would be essential for Math Civics and Sciences to continue throwing cold water on Lancaster Catholic’s dreams of walking out with a victory. With that mind, the Elephants’ capable junior was able to add one more to the MCS cause, making it a 64-61 Mighty Elephants’ lead with time running out.

Time running out? Such a notion has been the trademark of Lancaster Catholic’s heroics of late. So, with that in mind, it was nothing if not extremely on-brand to see the Crusaders’ bank in a triple their next trip down the floor, this one thanks to the handiwork of Nevin Roman, making it a 64-64 ballgame with 6.6 seconds left.

Unfortunately, as far as those in the Crusaders’ camp were about to find out, living on the edge can be equally as cruel as it is exhilarating.

With Math Civics and Sciences having to travel the length of the floor following the Roman trey with just under ten seconds remaining, the Elephants inbounded the ball to Nisine Poplar and decided to let him do the rest. Suffice to say, that proved to be the smartest decision of the entire day as Poplar strolled across the timeline before pulling up from well beyond NBA range –with a hand in his face no less—and hitting the biggest shot found in the 3A ranks within the entire state of Pennsylvania this season as Poplar’s banked-in triple at the final buzzer not only capped off his magnificent 22-point performance on the afternoon, but it also vaulted Math Civics and Sciences in the state semifinals for a date against Loyalsock on Tuesday night by virtue of the Mighty Elephants’ heart-stopping 67-64 final triumph against an ardent Lancaster Catholic bunch on Saturday afternoon.

Understandably, especially given the way things ultimately ended within the blink of an eye for Lancaster Catholic, hugs and final goodbyes were in no short supply as evidenced by the scene within the Crusaders’ hallway turned makeshift locker room in the immediate moments following their gut-wrenching final defeat. Nonetheless, as he always is, Lancaster Catholic head coach Joe Klazas was the epitome of class after he emerged following his final message to the 2020-21 squad.

“Obviously you’re playing a Philly school and there was some intimidation early,” Klazas admitted afterwards. “We were careless early. We didn’t execute some pressure situations the way we wanted, but we definitely got better at that and our confidence definitely grew,” Klazas continued. “The fact that we bounced back, tied it, (Math Civics and Sciences) takes the lead to start the fourth, and we come back and make plays, you just think of a few possessions here or there where if we execute a little better, it could’ve made a difference obviously…You’re playing a great team like that, having a chance to win like that at the end is all you can ask for.”

“We were pretty darn close,” added Klazas. “It’s pretty hard to be disappointed. Yeah, I think there’s a couple things that could have made a difference, but there was so much in fight in them,” he said of his squad.

“It’s incredible,” Klazas then said summing up the wild season itself which had just concluded no more than five minutes prior. “If you would have told me that we would’ve been able to play this amount of games, play in the state quarterfinals, I don’t know if I would have believed it back in December. This group of seniors, I think I did the math the other day, I think it was 89 wins in their four years. Two district championships, a runner-up, getting to experience four state playoffs, that’s just remarkable for this group,” said Klazas of the sensational departing group of soon-to-be graduates from his alma mater. “We’re certainly gonna miss ‘em. That’s for sure.”

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