Seedings proved to be rather meaningless Thursday in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association Class B boys basketball semifinals.
Both of the top two seeds, No. 1 Walsh and No. 2 St. Mary’s, were eliminated by underdogs led by dynamic sophomores. Nichols’ Marcellus Cooper had 27 points to lead the Vikings over Walsh, 60-58, in the opener at Villa Maria College, while Niagara Catholic 10th-grader Imean Davis had 14 points and three steals to lead the Patriots over St. Mary’s, 59-56, in the nightcap.
Niagara Catholic and Nichols will play for the Monsignor Martin Class B championship and subsequent spot in the state Catholic playoffs at 2 p.m. Sunday back at Villa Maria.
Of the upsets, Nichols’ would rank as more surprising. Walsh came into the game as the top seed after its first Class B title since 2003. But coach Andy Moore could sense that his Eagles team was missing something.
“We just didn’t seem to have that sense of urgency we needed to have,” he said.
His fears turned out to be well founded as the fifth-seeded Vikings avenged two regular-season losses. Included in Cooper’s 27 points was the go-ahead basket with just over 20 seconds remaining. With Walsh holding a 58-57 lead, Eagles junior Noah Watson blocked a Nichols shot, but the ball found its way to Cooper, who finished at the rim and was fouled.
“I saw the loose ball, hustled to it as hard as I could, went up strong and confident,” Cooper said. “I knew right when I got fouled it was going to go in.”
After Cooper’s free throw, Walsh had a chance to tie the game, but senior Adam Moore was unable to convert in the lane. Cooper grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 2 seconds left. He missed the front end of the one-and-one, but a desperation heave from Walsh didn’t come close, securing the upset.
“It was something I really wanted to happen for them because we’re an extremely young team and we suffered this year,” Nichols coach John Reinholz said. “We went through a lot of growing pains and lost a lot of tough games – sometimes close and sometimes by a lot. But we kept talking about if we come together by the end of the season, we keep growing as a team, good things will happen.”
A play-in victory over Cardinal O’Hara on Sunday gave Nichols some momentum, and the Vikings kept riding that wave Thursday. After trailing at halftime, 31-29, Nichols scored 22 points in the third quarter to hold a 51-45 lead going into the fourth. That lead stretched to as many as seven points, but Walsh battled back to regain the lead late.
A three-pointer from Moore cut Nichols’ lead to 57-55 with 1:12 remaining, then Watson stole the inbounds pass. The Eagles worked the ball around until Watson got open and drained a clutch three-pointer for a 58-57 lead with 44 seconds left.
During an ensuing timeout, Cooper had a message for his team: Chill out, I’ve got this.
“I didn’t react at all ” when Watson hit his three, Cooper said. “I just hustled to the bench and told everybody’ it’s ok. Just calm down, keep playing our game, we’re only down 1 point, it’s going to be fine.’ ”
Both teams shot the ball exceptionally well, with Nichols hitting 10 three-pointers and Walsh 11. Nichols’ William Johnson had six three-pointers as part of 19 points, while Walsh’s Tavien Kemp hit five as part of 19 points.
“They made some unbelievable shots – time after time,” Moore said. “For us, it’s a tough way to end it, because we had such a good run. We have a very small margin for error. I knew anybody in this league could beat us.”
In the nightcap, Davis and point guard Jaceary Menes (12 points, four steals) keyed a relentless halfcourt trap in the third quarter that allowed the Patriots to erase a 25-23 halftime deficit. Niagara Catholic finished with 14 steals.
“We were able to get fast-break baskets in transition, which is what we do well,” Niagara Catholic coach Giulio Colangelo said.
A steal and behind-the-back pass by Davis set Menes up for one of those transition layups, and a baseline jumper by Zach Socha (11 points) stretched Niagara Catholic’s lead to 47-37 early in the fourth quarter, but St. Mary’s never went away. Playing without three starters because of school suspension – including senior 1,000-point scorer Takal Molson, who averaged 26 points per game this season – the Lancers cut Niagara Catholic’s lead to 56-53 on a layup by Kayson Hill with 1:15 left. St. Mary’s got two possessions after that with a chance to tie the game, but turned the ball over each time.
“We had some opportunities and we just let them fall out of our hands,” St. Mary’s coach Paul Rath said.
To his credit, Rath refused to use his short-handed lineup as an excuse.
“We did some juggling around, but you’ve got to overcome,” he said. “It didn’t happen. By the time we got to figuring out that half-court press, it was a little late.”
A final steal and layup by Davis gave Niagara Catholic a 59-53 lead and appeared to ice things, but St. Mary’s still had life after a three-pointer by Daquan Hunt with 2 seconds left. Menes was called for traveling on the ensuing inbounds play, giving the Lancers the ball with .6 seconds left. Hill, who had a team-high 14 points, just missed a three-pointer that could have tied the game.