Taverick 'Tank' Roberson scored 19 points in the loss.
AMHERST, Mass. — Nothing can take away from what the seniors in the St. Joseph Central High School boys basketball program have done over the last four years.
But even more important, according to their coach, is what they take away for the rest of their lives.
"What I said at the end there was, 'Guys, we've been fighting together this way as a family for the last four years,'" St. Joe coach Paul Brindle said after the Crusaders fell, 66-63, to Smith Academy in the Western Massachusetts Division 3 championshp game. "You came in as winners, and you're leaving as a winner as well.'
"The biggest thing I pointed out to them is we are a family at St. Joe. We are always there. The alumni, the staff, the former players. We are all a family, and that will be for the rest of your life. Even though you lost your last high school basketball game, you're part of something bigger, saying that you're a St. Joe alumnus.
"And you were part of something for four years that anyone would give their left arm to be a part of."
The 2012 Western Mass champions came agonizingly close to defending their title and earning at least one more game in that St. Joe uniform they wore with such distinction over the last four years.
The sixth-seeded Crusaders (14-9) led most of the afternoon against the No. 4 Falcons. After taking a 10-9 edge on a transition lay-in by Taverick "Tank" Roberson with two minutes left in the first quarter, St. Joe did not trail until the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
But Smith took the lead for good with just fewer than two minutes left to play when David Longstreeth knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 62-61.
Moments later, Derek McMahon's steal and lay-in for Smith stretched the lead to three points. A Lavante Wiggins bucket in the post with 43 seconds left got St. Joe within one, but Keith Natale hit a 12-footer in the lane to provide the final margin with 15 ticks left.
After Smith, which had two fouls to give in the final seconds, used one with 3.4 second left, the Crusaders ran an inbounds play for Michael Carpenter, but his try for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer rimmed out, sending Smith to Tuesday's state semi-final at Worcester's DCU Center against the winner fo the Central Division sectional later Saturday afternoon.
"It's almost surreal — not in a good way," said Roberson, who finished tying for game-high honors with 19 points to go with five assists. "We almost can't believe it.
"This team has been fighting all year to get where we want to go. And to have it end like this just doesn't feel right. It's almost surreal. Right now, it feels ... like a bad dream."
Mathew Sulda helped keep Smith's dreams of a state title alive with 19 points, but the Falcons' star got help from Natale with 18 and Longstreeth with 13.
"[Sulda's] a great 3-point shooter, and the objective was to make him work, and we did make him work," Brindle said. "The reason we lost this game is because their supporting cast played the best game of their high school careers today.
"They had three players that had double digit points who average 6, 5, 4 during the regular season. They were phenomenal today. They made open shots. They made big shots when they needed to. They just played an all-around great game.
Michael Carpenter tries for a free throw attempt. See more photos here.
St. Joe played great through the middle stages of the game after coming out looking very much like a six seed in the opening stages.
The Crusaders committed four turnovers on their first seven possessions to help Smith take the early lead.
"We turned the ball over, and I was shocked," Brindle said. "They play a 2-3 zone, and although they're very aggressive in it, and it's a very extended 2-3 zone, we've got kids who can handle the ball. I was surprised. We threw the ball away a little bit, a couple of forced passes, getting our pockets picked a couple of times. But they're a good basketball team, and they've got good basketball players as well."
Brindle said that despite four trips to at least the Western Mass semi-finals in the last four years, it took St. Joe a little while to settle down in this championship game appearance.
"This group of kids wants to win so bad that at times it goes against us a little bit," he said. "When we play a little bit more relaxed, they seem to shoot better, they seem to be a little more at ease with themselves. You get into a championship environment ... and I think today, at least in the beginning, they struggled."
Roberson's lay-in to give St. Joe its first lead came during a 12-2 run to close the first quarter. The Crusaders led by as many as seven points twice in the second quarter, the last time when Roberson set up Carpenter (19 points) for a triple with 1 minute, 43 seconds left in the half to make it 28-21.
St. Joe led by as many as six with fewer than two minutes left in the third before Smith started its comeback to set up a dramatic fourth quarter.
The final eight minutes saw three lead changes, starting with Derek McMahon's drive on the rigth wing to make it 54-53, Smith.
The Falcons went up by four before a Carpenter 3, a pair of Matt Begrowicz foul shots and the final 3 of Roberson's brilliant career gave St. Joe a 61-59 lead with three minutes left.
But Smith scored seven of the game's last nine points to set the stage for Carpenter's desparation try from the right side.
Roberson said there was no one the Crusaders would have rather had taking the potential tying shot.
"Of course," Roberson said. "The ball's going to be in his hands or my hands, either one. I got faith in the whole team. I felt like anybody would have hit that shot, honestly. We gave him the ball. We've got faith in each other. It's a family thing. Whoever shot that shot, we believed it was going in."