By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Suche James said his players were so calm at the start of Sunday’s high school senior basketball championship game, it was as if they didn’t realize they’d fallen behind 9-0.
“Looking up there, it was pretty dismal,” Falcons forward Brendan Steele said, nodding to the scoreboard at the far end of the court. “At a certain point you’re thinking, ‘Aw, god, this better not be a blowout; our whole school’s here.’”
It just didn’t matter.
The Falcons ultimately climbed out of that early hole; they came back from being down 19-7 early in the second quarter, and they overcame a one-point deficit in the final minute to claim a 51-46 victory over the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association championship game in the main gym of the Queen’s University Athletics and Recreation Centre.
For the Falcons, 9-2 going into the game, it was the second county title in the last three years and it was eerily similar to the last one, when they upset La Salle. As was the case with Holy Cross Sunday, La Salle, that year featuring the Graham brothers, Tanner and Jesse, had a decisive height advantage that the Falcons simply neutralized with their speed and three-point shooting.
James said the Falcons never deviated from their game plan Sunday afternoon, no matter how gloomy their prospects may have appeared to everyone else in the place.
“We knew that we may not get something off our pressure right away,” James said. “We were tight. The kids were slow to move to the next pass. It’s a very typical thing, playing in a championship game. We were just slow. It took us a quarter to get comfortable.
“Once we got comfortable and didn’t overthink anything, we started to use our athleticism and create some plays. We really weren’t worried. We knew … we weren’t going to be slow for much longer. The guys have too much character to go on that way.
“Once we knew we could speed up a bit, that we were in the moment, we’d be fine.”
After Holy Cross scored the first basket of the second quarter to go up 19-7, the Crusaders committed a couple of turnovers that led to Frontenac baskets. At one point in the period, the Falcons hit five consecutive three-point shots. They scored 21 straight points to go up 28-19 and, with Evan Desarmia hitting another three-pointer at the buzzer, took a 32-26 lead into halftime.
“We just needed to see the ball go into the hoop a couple of times,” James said. “Then we were OK.”
Still, keeping an emotional lid on teenage boys, when you’ve asked them to play at a fast pace in an highly charged setting such as a championship game, is easier said than done.
“I truly believe that your leaders, including your coaches, have to be calm,” James said, “and if we’re calm, the players will be calm.
“It’s funny. We did not talk about the score, ever. It’s like they played without knowing what the score was, and that’s a credit to them. Our Grade 12 kids were calm. Brendan Steele is definitely among those guys.
“Kyle (Casford) and Brendan were like this the whole game,” James continued, gesturing with one hand on a horizontal plane. “Not too high, not too low.”
Steele said it’s nerve wracking to find yourself trailing in an unfamiliar gym when the shots aren’t dropping. “It’s tough,” he said, “but we trust in our system.
“We knew the shots were going to start dropping. You’ve just got to have faith. With the style of play that we use, we can score in bunches, and it’s important to trust that your shots will start falling, and to just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Holy Cross actually handled the Frontenac pressure reasonably well, insofar as the Crusaders were able to bring the ball up the court. What killed Holy Cross were turnovers in the front court once they got there.
“That’s not an uncommon thing with what we do,” James said, “especially on a big court. There’s so much room. You never know when they’re going to come. You feel like you’re not getting anything out of the pressure and then all of a sudden they make two plays out of the blue in random places. That’s just how it’s been all year.
“We created just enough turnovers to make a difference.”
Trailing 39-34 at three-quarter time, Holy Cross got baskets right away from Luciano Troiani and Braydon Norris to cut the deficit to one. For the next few minutes, Frontenac’s lead wavered between one and three points, until Troiani hit a three with 3:20 to play to tie the game 43-43.
Clay Taylor made a free throw to put his team ahead 44-43 going into the final minute, but Steele hit a three from the top to put the Falcons back ahead by two with 46.4 seconds on the clock. Holy Cross had the ball out of bounds with 26.5 seconds remaining, but the Falcons promptly stole the ball and Tristan Halladay made the breakaway layup.
As the Crusaders tried to bring the ball up the court, Steele forced another turnover and was fouled. He made both shots to put Frontenac decisively on top, 50-44, with less than 10 seconds to play.
Steele was the only one of the Frontenac players to reach double figures, with 17 points, including all seven of his team’s points in the first quarter. Desarmia, off the bench, and Casford each scored nine points.
The Falcons, a team with four Grade 10 players—James said there wouldn't have been a senior team at the school this year without them—were 9-for-22 from beyond the three-point arc, and scored just six baskets from inside it.
Troiani finished the game with 14 points for Holy Cross, seven in the first quarter and seven in the fourth. Sam Pierson, 4-for-4 from the free-throw line and 2-for-2 from three-point range, scored 12 points for the Crusaders.
Holy Cross substituted freely throughout the game, possibly in attempt to run the Falcons, who used just seven players, ragged. Going 10 players deep, however, may have made it difficult for the Crusaders, who seemed unable to sustain any offensive rhythm after the first quarter.
Holy Cross, which suffered its first defeat of the KASSAA season—the Crusaders beat Frontenac 50-41 during the regular year—will now represent eastern Ontario at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations AAA championship tournament next month at Windsor.
Frontenac will begin play in the Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association tournament on Thursday, seeking a berth in the double-A OFSAA tournament in Timmins.