Canisius versus Park did more than live up to all the pregame hype heading into the No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup.
It exceeded all expectations, with returning All-Western New York first-team pick Stafford Trueheart being the ultimate difference-maker for perhaps the ultimate big-game team in the area.
Canisius, the top-ranked team in Western New York, rode a big second half from their 6-foot-7 senior big man to turn back a stiff challenge from News’ No. 2 large school Park, 56-53, before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 350 at Park’s Rich Family Activity Center.
Trueheart scored 17 of his game-high 28 points during the second half – including several key putback baskets to offset seemingly good defensive possessions by the Pioneers – to help Canisius overcome a 27-25 halftime deficit in this battle between Monsignor Martin Association rivals.
“We knew we could go after them at the rim,” said Trueheart, who shot 13 for 18 from the floor, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked three shots. “We wanted it really badly.”
“You could sense the energy before the game,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “This is why they play, for atmospheres like this and this type of competition.”
With the win, Canisius (12-1) extends its winning streak against Western New York competition to 25 while officially snapping the Pioneers’ 17-game winning streak.
The last time Park (12-1) lost on the court, it was at Canisius, 70-62, on Feb. 17, 2015.
People showed up more than an hour before tipoff in anticipation of the first contest in Western New York between reigning state boys basketball champions since Dec. 19, 2010 – when Class C Middle Early College defeated defending Federation Class A champion Nichols at a tournament at St. Bonaventure.
The crowd saw two teams with hopes of making another championship run get after it from the opening tipoff – from Canisius’ Justin Jones opening the game with a trey to Kyle Harris replying a minute later with a runner off glass.
They also saw Trueheart carry the Crusaders on his back after Park took control with a 13-0 run to open the second quarter.
With Canisius trailing, 27-14, with about four minutes to go before halftime, Trueheart scored on back-to-back dunks to momentarily bring a hush into the tiny gym.
He got to the basket almost at will in the second half, where he feasted on putback opportunities.
“We do a lot of things well but” boxing out is “just one of the things we don’t do well,” Park coach Mike Battaglia said.
With Park up, 35-33, Trueheart’s dunk with 2:05 left in the third quarter sparked a 6-0 run that enabled the Crusaders to take the lead for good.
He wasn’t finished. His three-point play and layup early in the fourth kept Canisius ahead, 44-38.
“He’s our backbone,” Husband said of Trueheart. “When he plays like that he’s really good. He was awesome tonight.”
“He was very good, the best player on the court,” Battaglia said. “They were the better team. … We get to play them again in two weeks. He works hard and he outplayed us today.”
Harris led the Pioneers with 18 points and Jordan Nwora had 13.
Harris’ three-point play pulled Park within 56-53 with 6.7 seconds left. But with no timeouts remaining and after a missed Crusaders free throw during a one-and-one, the Pioneers could muster only a desperate nearly full-court heave off the mark at the buzzer.
Park returns to action at 6:30 p.m. Friday at St. Francis. Canisius has a challenging home game Tuesday night against Archbishop Walsh.
Both teams play quite the daunting schedule leading up to round two Feb. 3 at Canisius. Trueheart can’t wait.
“It lived up to the hype,” Trueheart said. “It was a great game. Luckily this isn’t the only one we get to play. We get to play another one at our place.”