HYDE — The Elk County Catholic boys basketball team has gotten off to its share of strong starts this season, and the Crusaders used another one Thursday night to put Williamsburg behind the 8-ball early on on their way to a 76-48 victory at Clearfield High School in the second round of the PIAA Class A playoffs.

Elk County (28-0) never trailed in the game, as the teams traded scores to open the game before a 3-pointer by Crusader Gabe Kraus sparked a 14-2 run that gave the Crusaders a 12-point lead (16-4) just before the midway point of the opening quarter.

The Crusaders maintained that cushion the remainder of the quarter and led 22-10 after eight minutes of action. Williamsburg, the District 6 runner-up, never got closer than that 12-point margin the rest of the night as ECC scored five quicks points to start the second quarter to push the lead to 17 at 27-10.

Elk County eventually took a 21-point advantage (41-20) into the locker room at halftime to all but put the game away after two quarters. Williamsburg continued to fight after the break, as ECC only outscored the Blue Pirates, 18-17, in the third quarter before extending its lead in the fourth en route to the 28-point victory.

Seniors Gabe Kraus and Nate DaCanal fueled the ECC victory as they combined to score 47 of ECC’s 76 points to help the Crusaders reach the state quarterfinals for just the second time since winning a state title in 2006. The school’s only other quarterfinal berth since then came in 2009 when ECC lost in the West finals to Kennedy Catholic (58-44).

That just happens to be who ECC plays in Saturday’s quarterfinals, as Kennedy hammered Juniata Valley, 88-45, Thursday night.

Kraus finished with a game-high 24 Thursday, including four 3-pointers, and scored 12 of those points during the Crusaders’ first quarter surge. DaCanal ended right behind his teammate with 23 points, with 12 of those coming of those coming in the second half.

While Kraus and DaCanal were the only Crusaders in double figures, teammates Dan Stauffer, Ryan Newton and Jared Braun each finished with eight points. Braun had six of his points in the first quarter to help ECC build its early lead.

“I thought we played really well in the first half,” said ECC coach Aaron Straub. “I thought we played with a lot of confidence and we were decisive and did a lot of really good things. Then the last minute and half or so of the second quarter sort of set the tone for the second half. i thought we just weren’t as precise and didn’t attack and play with the same aggressiveness.

“Williamsburg played hard. I admire what they they did. They did not stray from how they play. They want to run it up the floor and shoot it. And, they’re going to play that way whether they are down or up, and that takes a lot of conviction to do that. They played hard, and once we built the lead we weren’t able to elongate it, and I was sort of disappointed that we just couldn’t shake them.

“We’ve had a great following, and our fans were great tonight. This is a super venue to play in, and I think we felt comfortable playing here (1st time at Clearfield).”

Kraus almost single-handedly built ECC’s early lead on the offensive end, as the senior scored 12 of the Crusaders’ first 16 points as they raced out to a 16-4 lead midway through the quarter. Kraus hit two of his 4 treys in the run, while Braun scored the other four points.

DaCanal got into the scoring act late in the quarter as he scored two baskets around Braun’s third hoop of the game to push the ECC lead to 22-7. Williamsburg’s Austin Fay then drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it 22-10 and send the Blue Pirate faithful into a frenzy. Fay, the team’s second leading scorer (11.7 ppg) was held to just five on the night.

That excitement was shot-lived though, as DaCanal scored kist seven seconds into the second quarter. Kraus drilled a 3-pointer 39 seconds later to make it 27-10, then promptly drew a charge on the other end of the floor to help keep the momentum in ECC’s favor.

While Williamsburg’s Nick Michelone did score after ECC had an empty possession following the charge, the Crusaders quickly put together an 11-3 spurt to grab a commanding 38-15 lead with 2:27 remaining in the half. DaCanal had five points in the run, capping it with a trey.

The Blue Pirates countered with a 3-pointer from Michelone and a hoop by Andrew Rhoads to make it an 18-point game (38-20), but Stauffer completed an old-fashion three-point play in the final minute to give ECC a 41-20 lead at the break.

Williamsburg scored back-to-back buckets to open the third quarter, only to see ECC rip off nine straight of its own. A pair of Kraus free throws off a technical foul on the Blue Pirates’ head coach followed by a trey from the senior gave the Crusaders a 50-24 lead with 5:03 left in the third.

The Blue Pirates closed the quarter on a 7-3 spurt to cut the ECC lead to 22 (59-37) after three quarters.

Williamsburg got no closer than 21 in the fourth as ECC used spurts of 5-0 and 8-0 in the quarter to up by as many as 32 points before winning by 28. DaCanal scored eight of his 23 points in the fourth before Straub started to pull his starters with just under four minutes to go.

Straub knows his undefeated Crusaders face a stiff test against Kennedy, the defending PIAA Class A state champs. But, it’s one they are prepared for.

“We are looking forward to the challenge and the opportunity that we have on Saturday,” said Straub. “We are going to embrace that opportunity and embrace that challenge, and we are not going to blink.

“I like our kids, and I like our chemistry. And, I like the fact our kids have been together playing since third grade, and there’s a lot to be said for that.”

A site and time for that game should be released some time Friday.

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