The beauty of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Basketball Classic is that it’s a time for top boys teams in the area to not only gather for games that should, in theory, better prepare them for the postseason, but also settle potential water-cooler arguments.
For instance, in the last Buffalo News Large School poll, there’s no clear-cut No. 1 team in the area among pollsters. In fact, Canisius, Park and McKinley have each received first-place votes in recent rankings, but that should change following Saturday’s finale at the MLK Classic.
A year after the Crusaders and McKinley played in a game still considered an instant classic at City Honors, the annual meeting between the two proved to be an epic mismatch. No. 1 Canisius received scoring from 10 different players and controlled the paint en route to crushing McKinley, 72-46.
The inside presence of seniors Stafford Trueheart, Charles Hart and Madut Ayiy, each standing 6-foot-7, and the Crusaders’ other athletic leapers made life quite difficult for the News’ No. 3 team as Canisius combined to make 14 blocks.
“Our guys came ready to play,” Crusaders coach Kyle Husband said. “We had good energy but, most of all, we really defended. We didn’t allow them to penetrate and get into a groove.”
“They dominated (in grabbing) offensive rebounds, they dominated defensive rebounds,” McKinley coach Zaire Dorsey said after his team’s first loss of the season. “It seemed like they had six players out there.”
In other games at City Honors, Middle College found the formula it needed to give Cheektowaga the slip, 72-65. In the opener of Saturday’s tripleheader, East trounced Sweet Home, 73-46.
Anyone who predicted a Canisius win via blowout over McKinley (now 12-1) should go play the lottery, since the Macks are accustomed to delivering the one-sided beatings – not receiving them.
The Crusaders (11-1) set the tone early, recording three blocks within the opening 4 minutes, 22 seconds – Ayiy notching two of them. The Crusaders started to pull away late in the first quarter when a one-point lead turned into an 18-9 advantage early in the second quarter. Andy Schake started that 8-0 run with a long two-pointer. Trueheart ended it with a thunderous one-handed breakaway dunk after a block by 6-4 sophomore Jayce Johnson.
Canisius, which rode lockdown defense to winning the state title last season, led 36-22 at halftime and, at one point, had a 31-point advantage.
“Our size in general is a huge strength of ours,” Husband said. “Everyone that plays is either over 6-foot-2 or has a lot of strength to them. I think you saw that not only affect the game early but I think it wore on them throughout the entire game.”
Trueheart and Ayiy each finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, with Trueheart also making four steals and dishing out three assists. Justin Jones added 11 points, seven rebounds and five steals.
Canisius will return from a mini break to visit fellow defending state champion Park at 3 p.m. Saturday in what becomes the latest game-of-the-year selections as it pits No. 1 against No. 2. As much of a confidence booster as Saturday’s win should be, though, the Crusaders are keeping a level head.
“Park is a much a better team than McKinley,” said Ayiy. “If we want to beat them, we have to work a lot harder.”
Working as a team enabled Middle College to come back against Cheektowaga (5-5).
After registering just two assists as a team in the first half, usually reserved Kats coach Randall Rich voiced his displeasure in the locker room during the intermission. That got his team’s attention, as Middle College (7-5) quickly rallied from the 36-31 deficit and carried a 54-43 lead into the final quarter. Jojo Staton, who scored 20 points despite fouling out with 3:30 left, sparked the comeback with a quarter-opening trey. Fred Foster (12 rebounds) had eight of his 22 points in the period, while Amir Jemes had four of his 12 in the frame.
Dominick Welch scored 18 of his game-high 29 points in the first half to lead Cheektowaga.
Middle College returns to action at noon Sunday at the MLK Classic at McDowell High School in Erie, Pa., against Vaughn (Ont.).
East (6-7) may be in reloading mode this season with four sophomores and a junior in its starting lineup, but coach Starling Bryant’s crew is starting to round into form after early-season growing pains.
Last year’s Class B champions won for the fifth time in the the last six games as the Panthers closed a 30-point second quarter on a 23-5 run for a 38-23 lead against Sweet Home (2-10). East, which is a Class C school this season, received a game-high 20 points from Willard Anderson.
“We’re very young,” Bryant said. “I’m trying to toughen the kids up and get them ready for the sectional run. They’re starting to show a lot of improvement.”