Joe Ciocca approached the bench after his third-quarter scoring surge and was greeted by one of his Canisius teammates.
“It’s nice to meet you,” senior JT Boyland joked. “I’ve never seen this before.”
Ciocca poured in 25 points in his varsity debut, netting 13 in the third and six down the stretch, to lead Canisius in a 67-64 comeback victory against West Seneca West on Friday night at the Kennedy Fieldhouse.
“I had a few games like that on JV, but nothing like doing it in that atmosphere,” the sophomore guard said. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”
The Crusaders (1-0) advanced to Saturday’s championship game of the 13th Tom Keenan Memorial Tournament where they will face South Park (2-0), which got 18 point from Anthony Mack and 17 from Jayson Armstead in its own comeback win, 67-62 over Aquinas.
Canisius climbed out of a 14-point first half hole to overtake a West Seneca West team that went undefeated against local opponents last year in winning the Section VI Class A championship.
While West Seneca West (0-1) awaits a court ruling next week that will determine the eligibility of returning All-Western New York point guard Juston Johnson, the uncertainty over that situation has taken an emotional toll on the team, coach Des Randall said.
“My kids came out, with everything they are going through, missing their leader, and they fought and they played hard,” said Randall, who is Johnson’s older brother. “I’m very satisfied with how they competed.”
Adrian Baugh took over as the offensive focal point and finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Maurice Robertson, a transfer from Sweet Home, added 19 points, 11 rebounds and two steals despite spending most of the second and third quarters on the bench in foul trouble.
Canisius, which had already graduated all five starters from last year’s team that went 23-3 and won the Monsignor Martin regular season title, was also shorthanded, with seven players suspended for the opener due to team rules violations.
“There weren’t many guys out there that have played many minutes of varsity basketball before,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “We settled down and I thought we showed a lot of grit in the second half. We made big, tough plays when we needed to.”
Eric Kegler, a senior transfer from St. Mary’s, scored seven of his 14 points during the third-quarter rally; Ishmael Fairclough had eight of his 10 points in the fourth; and Joe Jamison (eight points) broke loose for a fast break layup in the final seconds after West Seneca West squandered chances to tie or take the lead on its final two possessions.
The Indians dominated the first half, looking like a team capable of contending for another sectional title, with or without Johnson.
Robertson made an early impact before picking up two fouls and Baugh used his lanky, 6-foot-4 frame to control the boards, create havoc in the midcourt and slash for 13 points as the Indians opened a 33-19 lead late in the second quarter.
Canisius scored the final six points before halftime, refocused at the intermission, and took a 38-37 lead two minutes into the third quarter. Ciocca scored nine straight during the crucial stretch, sinking two of his five 3-pointers and Euro-stepping into a finger roll for a 3-point play.
Ciocca closed out the third with step-back 3 that put the Crusaders up 50-48. His confidence soaring in the fourth, Ciocca added to his highlight reel, sticking another step-back jumper from just inside the arc and bouncing off a defender to bank in a runner. The 5-10 guard even came up with chase down block.
“We obviously didn’t have our full team tonight, but we definitely have leaders on this team that stepped up in the locker room and told us what we needed to do,” Ciocca said. “It needed to be said and it fueled our team. I don’t think we were highly ranked going into this season, but this shows we are definitely a competitor this year.”
Canisius will have a full roster for Saturday’s matchup with South Park, which lost to West Seneca West in last year’s Class A championship game and looked formidable in its win over Rochester powerhouse Aquinas on Friday.
The Sparks closed the game on a 16-7 run after trailing 55-51 when Armstead fouled out with a little more than four minutes remaining. Sophomore My’kell Hepburn (12 points) hit two 3-pointers, including one in the final minute. Mack also made one from long range late.
“It was a big win because the team that we defeated tonight is very good,” said Willie “Hutch” Jones, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer who replaced Peter Hudecki at South Park after spending 17 seasons on the bench at Burgard. “I like that they are starting to buy in and play together as a team. And a win like that will bring them together even more.”