All the drama was supposed to be about Saturday's first Manhattan Cup semifinal game, the one pitting rivals St. Joe's and Canisius.
And then came the second semifinal between St. Francis and Nichols, and the hero for Nichols was not one of its junior standouts but senior Chris Stegemann.
Stegemann scored five of his eight points in the last 2:30 to help Nichols avoid Western New York's second monumental upset in as many nights as the Vikings fended off St. Francis, 63-54, at Canisius College's Koessler Athletic Center.
Canisius beat rival St. Joe's for the third time this season, 51-47. Nichols and Canisius will return to Koessler for tonight's Manhattan Cup final at 8 p.m.
Nichols is ranked second among large schools while Canisius is ninth. The No. 3 team in the poll, East High of Buffalo, was upset by Cheektowaga in Friday night's Section VI quarterfinals.
It looked like another upset was brewing when St. Francis shrugged off an early double-digit deficit and played Nichols tough the entire second half.
The game was tied at 52-52 and St. Francis was setting up a halfcourt set with just two and a half minutes to play. That's when Stegemann, a senior starter who often defends the opposition's best player, stepped in front of a pass outside the three-point line and dribbled the open length of the court for a layup.
Ron Canestro (19 points), who as usual led the way in scoring with junior teammate Will Regan (25), followed a St. Francis turnover with a slick baseline drive to put Nichols up, 56-52.
St. Francis missed its next shot, but looked like it had gotten a huge boost of momentum when Justin Love (eight points) blocked Regan's shot in the lane. The ball got kicked out to Stegemann, who nailed a deadly three-pointer from the left corner for a 59-52 Nichols lead with a minute left.
"Some people have to step up sometimes. Everyone has their games," said Stegemann. "Everyone has their role. My role is usually defense, and sometimes leadership, and [Regan and Canestro] do the scoring part.
"But," he added with a smile, "it's fun to score sometimes."
St. Francis (12-14) was seeded fifth in the Manhattan Cup tournament.
"We knew they were going to come hard -- they have seniors just like we do," said Stegemann. "Some other people might not have expected it, but we did.
Nichols was up 11 in the second quarter before St. Francis surged back, led by Delano Fabor (18 points) and Kyle Clifford (12).
St. Francis, which trailed, 18-10, after the first quarter and was behind, 29-25, at the half, took its first lead at 35-33 with 4:50 to go in the third quarter. The Red Raiders got three-pointers from Fabor and Matthew Reger early in the quarter and took the lead on a great transition bounce pass from Ozzie Lumpkin ahead to Kyle Clifford.
The game was tied at 38-38 heading to the fourth and was tied four more times.
For Canisius, coach Kyle Husband was preaching "defense and transition" all game and got it at the most important time.
Canisius had several transition baskets as it went on an 18-6 run to end the game.
"We finally got that in the fourth quarter," said Husband. "We got some steals and we able to run the floor. We need those kind of easy baskets."
Blair Helton had eight of his 17 points on fine fast-break finishes in the fourth. Andrew Zdrojewski and Max Baire both contributed nine points.
St. Joe's played the entire second half without a senior after starter Evan King was lost to a twisted ankle. The Marauders took a 41-33 lead on a great three-point play by James Maiarana, who drove to the left and hit a high bank shot after drawing contact with 5:23 left.
"The whole game changed -- the pace changed quickly," said St. Joe's coach Mark Simon. "That's what we were afraid of. It was a good chess match -- lots of changing defenses. I'm proud of the way we played. If we hit a couple of shots, it's a different story."
Fast break baskets by Helton and Baire cut the lead to 42-41 and Zdrojewski tied it with a free throw with three minutes left.
Helton finished a fast break off a great crosscourt pass from Sean Brady, got fouled and hit the free throw for a 45-42 Canisius lead with 1:25 to play. Another Helton finish off a Brian Graham pass made it 47-42 entering the final minute, and a Baire three-point play made it 49-44 with 39.5 seconds left.