Sunday March 10, 2013

AMHERST -- Tank Roberson came out of the locker room at the Curry Hicks Cage to a hug from his football coach.

Roberson couldn't believe his basketball season was over.

"It feels almost surreal, not in a good way," the St. Joseph senior said after talking to Gary Bianchi. "It's almost like you can't believe it. This team's been fighting all year to get where we wanted to go. To end like this, it doesn't feel right.

"Right now, it feels like it never even happened. It feels like a bad dream."

The Crusaders couldn't make a return trip to the state tournament, falling on Saturday 66-63 to Smith Academy in the Western Massachusetts Division III final. Despite 19 points each from Roberson and Michael Carpenter, sixth-seeded St. Joe (14-9) couldn't withstand the onslaught from the No. 4 Falcons (21-3). Mathew Sulda led three players in double figures with 19.

"I felt like even when we had a 7-point lead, 4-point lead, that somehow Sulda would make a big play, and he did," said Crusaders coach Paul Brindle. "But at the same time, their role players played their best high school game tonight, and that's why we lost the game."

Sulda didn't score in the last four minutes, 58 seconds. Instead, Keith Natale (18 points), David Longstreeth (13) and Derek McMahon (8) combined for the Falcons' final nine points. Natale nailed a foul-line jumper with 15 seconds left that extended the lead to three, forcing the Crusaders into a 3-pointer that clanked off the rim at the buzzer.

St. Joe's defense just couldn't find a way to keep Smith Academy at bay. Like a rubber band, the Crusaders' lead would swell only to be reeled in by remarkable play after remarkable play. Sulda knocked down shots with defenders in his face, scoring 10 in the third to keep the game tight.

A 9-2 run midway through the fourth finally put Smith on top. While Roberson's last career bucket -- a 3-pointer -- gave St. Joe a 61-59 lead, the Falcons went ahead to stay a minute later on a deep bomb from Longstreeth.

"We had guys who stepped up and made shots and down the stretch we hit some big ones," said Smith coach Matt Zerneri. "The kids want it, they're unselfish and they play hard. They're good basketball players. They're not afraid of the challenge."

Brindle told his players to be proud of their accomplishments. The coach, who is stepping down, has led St. Joe to two straight Western Mass. finals and last year's state title game.

"What I said at the end was ‘Guys, we've been fighting this way together as a family for the last four years together,' " Brindle said. " ‘You came in as a winner, you're leaving as a winner as well, even though we lost this game. You are always going to be a winner.' "