St. Joe boys back in a groove for W. Mass. basketball semis
PITTSFIELD -- St. Joseph is back at the Curry Hicks Cage.
Reaching the Western Massachusetts Division III semifinals isn't surprising for a boys basketball team that went all the way to the state final 12 months ago. This journey, though, has gone way off script.
"This is the toughest year I've ever been through in my life when it comes to St. Joe and our basketball team," said Crusaders senior Tank Roberson. "It was really tough. ... It's more of a focus. When you get to tournament time, you got to focus on what Coach wants you to do."
St. Joe put aside all its struggles, including six losses by a possession, to stun No. 3 Mount Greylock last week and reach today's semifinal against No. 7 Lee. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. at the University of Massachusetts.
A year after dominating Berkshire County and rolling through Western Mass., the sixth-seeded Crusaders (14-8) had to adjust to having the bulls-eye on their back. St. Joe was decimated by the flu in the middle of the year, and even lost coach Paul Brindle for a couple games due to a suspension.
"We never got a nice flow going where we'd run eight straight games in a row or something," Brindle said. "... What I was saying was, ‘Guys, you can see that any night you can get beat. I don't care what the record is of the other team. I don't care if you've beaten them before. You've noticed that teams come to play against you guys.' "
St. Joe certainly has its flow back in the postseason. The Crusaders comfortably beat Frontier before dominating the Mounties, who beat them twice during the regular season. Central to both wins has been the play of Lavante Wiggins, who, like his team, has been hot and cold this year.
Wiggins has been dynamite in the playoffs though, scoring 17 points in both wins. He entered the season with lingering injuries from football and is still playing with a broken toe.
"We feel like there's no stopping us now," Wiggins said. "We're ready. We're focused. We're willing to do anything to win. We're playing more as a team. We're talking to each other. We're playing defense, which is our biggest struggle all year."
Wiggins is a barometer for St. Joe. As much as the Crusaders, led by the slashing Roberson, score points in bunches off their guard play, they need an inside presence at this time of year.
Last year it was Lavante's brother Joe and Mike McMahon, who both graduated, that gave the Crusaders a powerful punch all the way through the state tournament.
"Once you get to tournament time and you get in the crunch of games and you need a basket or you need to do something, you have to go inside," Brindle said. "And you have to have someone inside who can do that for you. ... This year, two games already, we've got Lavante. He's been our horse."
And now the Crusaders are in a familiar place against a familiar foe. St. Joe ended Lee's season in the Western Mass. final last year. The Wildcats (14-8), who beat the Crusaders despite trailing by double digits after three quarters earlier this year, are never easy to beat. But St. Joe is playing the best basketball of the season at the right time.
"A lot of teams wrote us off with Greylock beating us twice in a season and many other teams beating us that we should not have lost to, I would say," Roberson said. "It means a lot, showing adversity. We had to get through a lot of things to get to this point. We knew it was going to happen. We knew we were going to get to the Cage.
"From there, we'll see what goes on."
To reach Christopher James:
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On Twitter: @BECJ2K.