ST. MARYS— The semifinals of the boys basketball AML Championship began Thursday night, and while Ridgway and Kane were duking it out at Ridgway High School, Elk County Catholic and Brockway were both putting on a clinic in St. Marys.
A strong first quarter by the Rovers knocked the No. 1 ranked Crusaders off their stride for the early moments of the game,and from there, the night’s event would be a highly contested match of skill, patience and drive that went beyond regulation.
But, thanks to a pair of foul shots from Ryan Newton and a timely power move down low by Nate DaCanal, ECC was able to overcome a fiery Brockway team and walk away with the 60-52 overtime victory.
For the Crusaders, who finished the regular season with an overall record of 22-0 — their second straight undefeated regular season — winning is certainly not unfamiliar territory for them.
Trailing in the first quarter and putting up a less-than-stellar fourth to force the game into overtime, however, is a little more unusual for the Elk County team, as they found a worthy adversary in Brockway.
“I thought Brockway came in and played extremely well,” ECC head coach Aaron Straub said. “We knew, from playing them in December and watching them three or four times and then some, we knew how athletic they were.
“They’re extremely athletic, they’re well coached, and they came in with a really good plan. We’re really fortunate and blessed to walk out with a win. They came into our gym, had a good plan, and never backed down.”
Brockway wasted little time in executing their game plan, as Jarrett Esposito lit-up the scoreboard 15 seconds into the game to give the Rovers the early 2-0 lead.
A couple moments later, and Brockway was on the attack yet again, this time receiving a scoring contribution from Zane Puhala to stay ahead 4-0.
ECC finally answered the Rovers’ assault when Dan Stauffer drove for a layup to cut the lead to 4-2, but a jumper from Esposito and a shot from near the key by Hunter Miller put Brockway back up, 8-4.
A timeout by Straub immediately after the basket seemed to calm and refocus the Crusaders, as moments later, DaCanal found an open Jared Braun down low for an easy two to put ECC back within striking distance at 8-6.
By the end of the quarter, the Crusaders had mounted themselves back to the top with a 12-11 lead, and entering the second quarter, they would continue their newly regained momentum and enter half-time with a 28-25 lead.
The third quarter saw less in the scoring department, but the same intensity and emotion as the previous half, and thanks to a three-pointer from game Kraus in the early minutes of the period, ECC would maintain their lead and end the quarter in the drivers seat at 39-32.
The fourth quarter, however, would be a different story, as Brockway showed its resilience in spades in the final period of regulation.
Esposito got the Rovers started with a put-back to make the score 39-34, and a three from Jake Wineberg saw Brockway inch themselves back into contention with ECC, 39-37.
Brockway pulled within one at the 3:38 mark, when Wineberg went 2-for-2 at the free-throw line to make the score 45-44. The Rovers tied the Crusaders, 46-46, and forced the game into overtime, keeping their AML Championship dreams alive.
However, a successful three-pointer by Kraus and a timely layup by DaCanal got ECC the added boost it needed, and by the end of the extra session, ECC came out with the 60-52 win.
Despite his team failing to capture the win and earning their first-ever AML title-game appearance, Brockway head coach Rick Clark couldn’t be more proud of the effort his players gave, especially with the playoffs so close in-hand.
“It’s playoff season. This is what you expect when you go into the playoffs,” Clark said. “A tight ball game and high intensity. But, I’m really proud of the effort our guys made. I thought we fought hard the entire game. They took a couple punches throughout the game and kept fighting back. We got a big stop at the end of the game, and we’re that close to winning it in regulation.
“I’m just proud of our guys and the effort they gave. We took an undefeated team, who hasn’t lost in a long time to a District 9 team, on their home court to overtime. To have a chance at winning in regulation, you can’t ask for a whole lot more of that from our guys.”
Esposito and Wineberg both led the Rovers in points with 13 each, while Carter Adams and Quade Lundberg added another eight and seven points, respectively.
For the Crusaders, Kraus led all players with a game-high 18 points. Newton netted 17 and DaCanal put in 15.
While Brockway prepares for its District 9 Class AA postseason matchup with Keystone, ECC will faceoff against Ridgway in the AML title game Saturday at St. Marys High School.