Crusaders Turn Around Season, Get Back to Final
AMHERST, Mass. — Moments after leading his team into the sectional title game, Lavante Wiggins almost allowed himself to be led astray.
Caught up in the crush of fans streaming away from the court at the University of Massachusetts' Curry Hicks Cage, Wiggins nearly followed the crowd out through the lobby instead of turning toward the St. Joseph boys basketball team's locker.
It was one of the few mistakes he made all night.
And it was particularly ironic considering how much time he and the rest of the Crusaders have spent in the Cage over the last four years.
But it was oddly reminiscent of the wrong turn the St. Joe team took in its quest to defend the 2012 Western Massachusetts Division 3 title.
Just three weeks ago, St. Joe lost its sixth game in 10 outings to fall to 10-8 on the season -- in the tournament for sure but markedly unsure of its chances of getting back to the semi-finals, let alone Saturday's championship game, where it will meet fourth-seeded Smith Academy (20-3) at 12:30 p.m.
"In all honesty, after the second loss against Mount Greylock, we really thought that we wouldn't be able to compete," Wiggins said. "We weren't playing as well as we knew we could have.
"Our coaches ... talked to us and let us know we were the best team around here. And even us as a unit, as a team, we talked to each other and told each other that we have to turn it up -- that we're the best team out here no matter what our record is. Now, we're playing like that."
St. Joe entered the tournament as the No. 6 seed, but it has won its three post-season games by margins of 22, 19 and 21 points.
Of course, Smith Academy may have been miss-seeded as well. After obliterating Ware, 85-39, in the first round, the Falcons hammered New Leadership by 21 and beat top-seeded Renaissance, 57-45, to reach the title game.
The Crusaders' 11-8 regular season record was colored somewhat by the fact that a team not known for its depth lost several of its starters to illness or injury at the start of its midseason slide. In fact, St. Joe played one fewer game than it had on its schedule because head coach Paul Brindle decided to cancel an appearance in the Spalding Hoop Hall Classic when it was clear the Crusaders would be too short-handed to compete.
Wiggins himself played through a bout with the flu and still scored nine in an early January win over eventual Western Mass semi-final opponent Lee. But the senior center had other issues that kept him from really rounding into form until late February, Brindle said.
"Lavante, all year long, was hurt," Brindle said. "Lavante came in from the football season with a broken foot, knee problems and really was not in shape. He'd put on a lot of weight. I'd say the last two and a half weeks of the season, he's really back in shape, in basketball condition.
"And we're riding him. What we've done every year in the tournament is we get the ball inside and work our big guys, and that opens it up for our guards because we're a guard-oriented team."
St. Joe is also a senior-oriented team with Wiggins, Taverick "Tank" Roberson and Michael Carpenter leading a contingent of eight seniors on a 13-man lineup.
So when things were going south last month, the experienced group was able to pull together.
"The team is run by all the seniors," Wiggins said. "We all talk to each other. We all let each other know what we're doing good, what we're doing bad. We're all there for each other. We're just a big family.
"We talk about the negatives and positives. And we don't get mad at each other, which is good. So it let's us work as a team."