There were four minutes left to play in Saturday’s showdown between Canisius and St. Joe’s, and the 2,000 or so jammed into Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center were getting what they’d expect when two of the best teams in Western New York meet.
The rivals were matching each other basket for basket, prompting corresponding roars from each school’s student sections packed behind the baselines. Canisius’ lead was cut to two, 60-58, with 3:41 to play.
Then Canisius, the top-ranked large school in Western New York, finished the game – and its regular season – with a flourish.
The Crusaders scored nine straight points during a game-closing 12-2 run to complete a 72-60 victory over No. 4 St. Joe’s and polish off a perfect Monsignor Martin record of 11-0. It is the first time that the league’s regular season champion has gone undefeated since St. Joe’s did it in 2006.
“We knew they were going to make their run – in a rivalry game it’s always going to be close,” said senior and Canisius College recruit Adam Weir, who scored nine of his 21 points during the spurt on the court he will compete on collegiately. “Our first goal was to sweep the league, the next goal is the Manhattan Cup, and then states.”
Canisius (19-4) is the top seed while St. Joe’s (19-5, 9-2) is the second seed in the Manhattan Cup playoffs; both teams will host quarterfinal doubleheaders on Thursday against opponents to be determined.
Senior point guard Aaron White had three three-pointers in an impactful game in which he scored his 19 points in the first three quarters and played aggressive on-ball defense.
“When AW plays like that, we’re tough to beat – he was awesome,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “We really did a nice job down the stretch. We did a good job playing tough ‘D,’ but we have to finish those possessions, and we did that the last three minutes.”
Canisius’ lead was cut to two when Dylan Hall converted a three-point play, but Canisius took over from that point on. After a timeout, Weir finished off a backdoor cut on what would be a three-point play, then added another three-point play for a 65-58 lead. Two-for-two trips to the line by junior Ryan Richards (nine points) and Matt MacDonald (10) gave Canisius an 11-point lead (69-58) with a minute left.
Canisius ran out to a 16-6 lead that St. Joe’s cut to 19-15 after the first quarter. Weir put down a hard, one-handed jam to push Canisius’ lead to 16 for the first of two times in the second, but with Weir on the bench with three fouls, St. Joe’s charged back behind senior Hall to make it 40-32.
Hall’s 19-point effort was typical of a cohesive group of St. Joe’s seniors that have improved as the season has gone on. Louis Oliveri had 13 points and Jaylen Morris 11. Mark Cerza (nine) was a force off the bench, recording several blocks, delivering nice passes and doing good work inside.
In the third, St. Joe’s took what would be its only second-half lead at 47-46 on a niftily spun banker by Cerza from under the hoop with 3:40 left, but White answered immediately with a three-pointer to reclaim a two-point lead. White had a key basket in the final seconds of the third, going coast-to-coast in four seconds for what would be a three-point play and a 55-51 Canisius lead after three. Canisius pushed its lead to seven (60-53) before St. Joe’s cut it to two.
Both Canisius and St. Joe’s hope to return to the same facility, before a similar – if not bigger – crowd in 10 days. The Manhattan Cup quarterfinal winners will advance to next Sunday’s semifinal doubleheader at Koessler, which will also host the championship game Feb. 27.
“We’ve had a great regular season,” Husband said. “That’s over with. I was asked if I was impressed – not yet. We still have a lot of basketball to play. We’ve got to finish.”