Little did Park realize that when it had two chances to win Sunday’s riveting Manhattan Cup Class A final against Canisius that it was playing right into the hands of its fellow defending state Federation champion.
The Crusaders are known for being stingy on defense. They prefer to win low-scoring affairs that require tons of disciplined play rather than trying to run back-and-forth outscoring their foes.
And so with another postseason championship on the line, Canisius lived up to its reputation.
Stafford Trueheart swatted away the Pioneers’ two last-second chances of adding to its title collection and made sure the Crusaders earned a shot at extending their own state championship reign as Canisius held on for a 60-58 overtime triumph at Villa Maria College. The two well-timed blocks enabled the Crusaders (24-2) to win their second straight Manhattan Cup title and sixth the last eight seasons.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,200 watched and reacted when the 6-foot-7 Trueheart blocked 6-8 sophomore Joe Jones’ game-winning shot attempt from near the top of the key with 2.2 seconds left in regulation and the game tied at 55-55. Moments later in overtime, with the Park faithful eagerly anticipating one of its own coming through at last against the Blue and Gold, Trueheart broke the Pioneers’ hearts once again. This time he deflected Hunter Anderson’s go-ahead shot try with Justin Jones scooping up the rebound with 4 seconds left.
“It’s what we’re best at all season, the defensive end,” said Canisius coach Kyle Husband, who earned his 250th career win. “I knew my seniors would step up. I wouldn’t want it any other way. They were huge blocks and the guys got the loose ball.”
Canisius, the News’ No. 1 Large School, will face a still-to-be-determined foe Saturday in a state Catholic Tournament Class A semifinal on Long Island. Should the Crusaders win Saturday, they along with Manhattan Cup Class B champion Nichols would get to play state Catholic championship games here in Western New York in two weeks.
The Crusaders had to work extra hard for their crowning moment Sunday as Park (19-4), last year’s Federation Class B champion, had its rival on the ropes in the teams’ third meeting of the season. The Pioneers took a 52-45 lead with 2:29 left in regulation on Jones’ layup off a nice assist by Jordan Nwora.
Canisius switched into comeback mode as tournament MVP Justin Jones (18 points, six rebounds, six assists) ignited the final push by hitting two free throws. After a Park turnover, senior Will Atkinson (12 points), a key reserve on last year’s title winner, canned the first of his back-to-back three-pointers to keep Canisius within striking distance. His second trey with 1:18 left gave the Crusaders a 53-52 lead.
“That took guts,” Husband said of those treys. “He nailed both of them and those were clearly our two biggest offensive possessions of the game.”
Those threes perhaps gave a little extra room for Trueheart to operate late in the paint. Canisius’ top scorer was limited to just 15 points, roughly 10 under his average, but he scored six of his team’s final seven points in crunch time, including the basket that forced overtime. After a layup by Joe Jones and free throw by Anderson gave Park a 55-53 lead, Trueheart converted a high-flying baseline layup off a nice feed from Colby Moultrie with 30 seconds left. It was a similar play to last year’s Cup-clinching basket for the Crusaders except Justin Jones made the cut and converted the layup off a sweet dish from the since graduated LaTerrance Reed.
Trueheart scored four of Canisius’ five points in the overtime. All of the Crusaders’ points came from the free-throw line with Jones hitting a free throw just after Trueheart blocked Anderson’s shot. The Pioneers failed to get a desperation shot off after Jones’ free throw.
“I knew we would have to rely on our defense,” said Trueheart, who finished with 10 rebounds and four blocks. “Everyone’s mentally tough and everyone kept fighting. We didn’t quit.”
Neither did Park, whose reign as state champion is now begrudgingly over.
Sunday’s ending was all too familiar for Park coach Mike Battaglia as four of the Pioneers’ last five losses over the last two seasons have come at the hands of Canisius.
Park loses five players to graduation, all of whom had a hand in turning the tiny basketball program into a big-time power over the last three years, including Nwora (13 points).
“I’m going to miss them,” Battaglia said.