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In a game that lived up to the anticipation of many who expected it to be the best early matchup of Western New York’s boys basketball postseason, St. Mary’s made sure it would keep playing, and it did it with defense.

The Lancers assured themselves a spot in the Manhattan Cup semifinals and claimed the Monsignor Martin Association’s Class B state playoff spot with a 68-60 victory over Nichols at Canisius High on Thursday evening.

“Defense wins games, defense wins championships, and that’s our motto at St. Mary’s,” said senior Paul Rath Jr., who led St. Mary’s with 16 points. “That’s what we try to work by and live by, and if we do that, the baskets will come and we’ll end up with the W’s.”

Junior Dione Strong made several standout defensive plays in the fourth quarter and hit a clutch jumper in the final minute during a 12-point performance on a night in which the Monsignor Martin final four was set.

At St. Joe’s, the second-seeded Marauders beat seventh-seeded Archbishop Walsh, 77-59, and third-seeded Bishop Timon-St. Jude routed sixth-seeded Niagara Catholic, 74-49. The action at Canisius began with the top-seeded Crusaders rolling to a 85-59 win over eighth-seeded St. Francis.

The semifinals will be played Sunday evening at Canisius College’s Koessler Athletic Center. St. Mary’s will face Canisius at 6 p.m., followed by St. Joe’s taking on Bishop Timon-St. Jude at 7:30.

Canisius’ home victory Thursday was just an appetizer for the showdown between the two top small schools in the league all season long. The teams split their season series and were matched so closely that their seeding was determined by a coin flip. St. Mary’s was fourth and Nichols fifth. In this week’s News small school poll, St. Mary’s (19-6) was seventh and Nichols (18-7) eighth.

The Lancers took big early leads as they were up, 20-13, after the first quarter and 35-26 at halftime. Nichols surged in the third behind standout sophomore forward Chris Miner (17 points) and senior Liam Ryan (16), who hit two of his five threes in the quarter.

Western New York’s postseason officially began in the final minute of the third, when Ryan hit a three to give Nichols its first lead, and Rath came back with a three as momentum — and crowd noise — swung back and forth. Rath added a blocked shot in the final seconds to send the game to the fourth tied at 44.

Early in the fourth, a Strong steal led to a Rath three-point play which reclaimed the lead for St. Mary’s at 50-48 with 5:34 left. That would be the start of a 12-0 run for St. Mary’s, one which included three steals by Rath and one by Strong, all of which led to baskets as St. Mary’s took a 59-48 lead with 3:44 to play.

Nichols cut the lead to 60-57, but Strong hit a jumper in the lane for a five-point lead with :49.4 left.

“Corey Kiebzak set a good screen, and it was there for me, and I made it,” said Strong. “When we hit shots, it opens everything up for everybody.”

Said Rath, who helped close out the game with another steal: “Dione Strong played the game of his life and we couldn’t ask more of him.”

Tyler English added 12 points for St. Mary’s while fellow junior Kiebzak had 10.

“Dione had a really nice game,” said St. Mary’s coach Paul Rath Sr. “Dione was just smooth. All the guys played their hearts out. What an exciting game, just a fun game to be a part of.”

St. Mary’s has assured itself a spot in the state Catholic Class B championship game as the representative from the Monsignor Martin Association. That game will be played at Fordham University on March 9, when the Lancers (unless they win the Manhattan Cup, in which case they would go into the state playoffs in Class A) will play the downstate champion for the right to go to the state Federation Tournament in Albany on March 22-24.

The remaining three quarterfinals featured three teams that have spent the season in The News large school poll easily distancing themselves from their opponents.

Canisius (20-4), No. 1 in The News large school poll, had 13 scorers in its win over St. Francis, with senior Matt MacDonald the only player in double figures (10) as the Crusaders continually caused Red Raider turnovers. St. Francis (8-18) was led by junior Sam Utley’s 11 points. Juniors Maurice Burse and Treyvon Holness and senior Cory Cullen had 10 each.

No. 2 large school St. Joe’s got 17 points from senior Mark Cerza and 16 each from seniors Jaylen Morris and Louis Oliveri as the Marauders (20-5) jumped to a 21-12 first-quarter lead in their win over Walsh. Senior Jake Chapman had 21 for Walsh (7-18).

No. 10 large school Bishop Timon-St. Jude (12-13) used a 23-4 third quarter to run away from Niagara Catholic. Junior Donte Williams had 17 points for Timon to lead four double-figure scorers, while senior Ryan Dougherty, who is coming off surgery to repair a knee that hindered him during football season, returned to the court and scored two points. Junior Andrew Adamson had 15 for Niagara Catholic (10-14).

email: kmcshea@buffnews.com