Joe Jamison and Ryan Bradley were not on Canisius during its Manhattan Cup Class A final appearances the past two years, but they are about to learn first-hand what it's like to play in one of the signature championship games in all of Western New York high school sports.
So too are members of the St. Francis Red Raiders.
Canisius (17-9) and St. Francis (20-5) both survived nail-biting finishes in their respective semifinal contests Saturday night at Villa Maria College to advance to Wednesday night's Manhattan Cup final.
Jamison and Bradley, newcomers to the two-time defending state Catholic champion Crusaders, played as if they've been on the Manhattan Cup final-four stage before, as they made several key plays with poise down the stretch to help fourth-seeded Canisius defeat top-seeded Bishop Timon-St. Jude, 65-61.
The two combined to make the play that broke the Tigers' hearts in this one, a steal and a layup in the closing seconds that secured the Crusaders' eighth trip to the final over the past nine seasons.
"I'm proud of the guys," said coach Kyle Husband after Canisius' first win in three meetings against Timon this season. "They've fought through a lot of adversity this season. They fought for 32 minutes."
So too did No. 2-seed St. Francis, which watched Park's Joe Jones miss a potential game-tying baseline jumper at the buzzer to earn a 66-64 victory over the third-seeded Pioneers.
Bo Sireika and Roburt Welch each scored 18 points to lead Frannies, which split the regular-season series with the Crusaders. The Red Raiders, who last won the Cup in 1978, advanced to the final for the first time since 2007, when they lost a 59-55 decision to Nichols.
"I was hoping to see Canisius again," said St. Francis coach Brian Ferris, who is friends with Husband. "There's nothing better than to see them in the Manhattan Cup final."
The final is at 8:05 p.m. Wednesday at Canisius College's Koessler Center.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,500 watched four of the top teams in Western New York battle for season-extending victories with thrilling finishes.
In the first game, they saw the Tigers go from potentially having a final possession to either tie or win to seeing Jamison, a sophomore, score the game-clinching layup in seemingly a blink of an eye with 10 seconds left.
That basket came after Canisius had misfired on a possession in which it milked the clock. Timon's Davion Warren collected the rebound of the Jayce Johnson miss, but a heads-up play by Bradley prevented the Tigers (18-7) from reaching the final for the first time since 2014 and from beating the Crusaders for the second time in eight days.
"I saw Jayce cut him off so I knew he had to change direction so I just prepared for him coming my way," said Bradley, who finished with 10 points and was one of five Canisius players in double figures. "I knew we needed a big play at the end. … I saw him put the ball behind his back and I knew I had to take it."
The Crusaders received a huge spark off the bench from Jamison – who was called up from junior varsity late in the season to boost depth. He finished with 12 points, scoring half of them during the final quarter.
His baseline drive and layup with 3:23 left gave Canisius the lead for good, 58-57. He followed that seconds later by blocking a layup try, which led to a three-pointer by Colby Moultrie (16 points) that made it 61-57 with 2:35 left.
"He was a man out there," said Husband of Jamison.
Jamison and Bradley also had a small role in taking Warren, the Tigers' leading scorer during the season, out of the game for a stretch in the second half. Jamison's steal late in the second quarter led to Warren picking up his third foul. Bradley then drew a charge against Warren midway through the third quarter, shortly after Canisius' Johnson had gone to the bench with four fouls.
In the absence of two of the top players in the league, others rose to the occasion.
Juston Johnson hit several big shots for Timon, finishing with a game-high 22 points. Joe Harrison also poured in 18. Johnson's layup with 3:44 left made it 57-56 Timon.
Jamison followed with a baseline drive and finish 16 seconds later to start Canisius' big finish.
"Joe Jamison was impressive," Husband said. "He's not scared of the moment and you saw that throughout the evening."
Neither St. Francis nor Park (17-6) was scared of the moment either as the two teams battled to a nail-biting finish for the third time in as many meetings this season.
Just like the previous two overtime decisions, the Red Raiders made the key plays to pull out victory. Both Sireika and Welch took turns leading the St. Francis offense with Sireika scoring 16 during the opening 16 minutes to stake the Red Raiders to a 37-30 halftime lead. Welch had 11 points in the second half, including seven during the fourth quarter.
Park didn't go away and rallied to take a 55-54 lead with 6:26 left in the fourth quarter on a thunderous putback slam by Jones (18 points).
Welch came up huge down the stretch – scoring seven of his points and dishing out one key assist, a layup by Sireika with 1:50 left that broke a 59-59 tie to give the Red Raiders the lead for good.
And help create a situation in which St. Francis will try to win its first title in 39 years against a team that has won 12 of them since the last time the Red Raiders took home the Cup.
Sounds like fun.
"First time in 10 years we get to a Cup final and I wouldn't want to play anyone else," Ferris said.