ALBANY – Canisius gave it its best shot Friday, trying to mount one last rally against a hungry and determined challenger to keep the overall state title from changing hands.
But all the work and energy the Crusaders exerted during the final 16 minutes of their state Federation Tournament of Champions Class A semifinal failed to undo an uncharacteristically flat first half by The News’ No. 1 Large School.
Canisius’ championship reign is over.
In a rematch of last year’s Fed final, Albany Academy proved to be a little sharper and made the big and little plays one needs to do to knock off a champion. The Cadets defeated Canisius, 63-51, during a semifinal clash Friday afternoon before an estimated 500 at Times Union Center.
Junior Hameir Wright scored 17 of his team-high 18 points during a 36-point first half in which everything went right for Albany Academy (17-4) while little went well for the state Catholic High Schools Athletic Association champion Crusaders (26-3). The Cadets shot lights out during the opening 16 minutes, sinking 13 of 25 behind Wright’s hot hand (5 for 8 from the floor, 6 for 8 from the line) en route to a 36-23 halftime lead.
The Cadets scored 16 points in the paint against Canisius’ tall front line during the first half, while the Crusaders failed to protect the ball (nine turnovers) and missed several open shots in that stretch.
Albany played with a little more zeal in the key moments and will meet public schools champion Elmont for the Federation title at 5 p.m. Saturday at Times Union Center.
It had to end sometime for the defending state Federation Class A champions.
That still doesn’t make defeat easier to stomach for a dejected Canisius crew whose seven seniors wanted to end their playing careers as the best of the best one more time.
“We got outplayed,” Crusaders senior Stafford Trueheart summed up of the early struggles.
“They had more energy,” senior Justin Jones said. “They came out way faster than us. We were on our heels.”
Give the Crusaders credit.
A team with a reputation for making late scintillating comebacks almost delivered another one as the Crusaders went down swinging in the second half.
They held Albany to six third-quarter points and seven field goals during the final 16 minutes. They pulled within 51-47 on a steal and layup by Jones with 1:59 left.
Canisius had rallied to win the Manhattan Cup championship in overtime against Park when trailing by seven with 2:29 left. Down four with two minutes to play Friday, one couldn’t help but think the Crusaders had this thing finally under control.
Albany Academy composed itself to slip in a final punishing blow as Sal Arena’s nifty finish near the basket 19 seconds later effectively ended the comeback. The Cadets made their free throws after that.
“I thought we had everything going well for us,” Jones said. “We just couldn’t finish it.”
“We dug ourselves too deep a hole,” Crusaders coach Kyle Husband said. “I’m extremely proud of the way they battled back.”
Trueheart scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the final game of his Canisius career, earning a spot on the all-tournament team. Jones finished with 10 points.
The Crusaders may have failed to become the ninth program in state history to win back-to-back Federation titles, but the current senior class departs as perhaps one of the most accomplished in school history.
Canisius set the school record for wins in a season this winter with 26. It won 51 of its final 59 games, capturing two New York State Catholic High Schools Athletic Association championships and one state Federation Tournament of Champions’ crown.
“We shouldn’t be hanging our heads,” Jones said. “We did historic things. It’s something our group should be proud of.”