The Crusaders will vie for the championship this weekend.
AMHERST, Mass. — For the St. Joseph boys basketball team, its section semifinal was a microcosm of its season: Start strong, have a lull, finish strong.
And if the Crusaders can win one more game on Saturday, they will finish on top of the Western Massachusetts Division 3 basketball world one more time.
St. Joe turned back a Lee High comeback effort on Wednesday in the Curry Hicks Cage to earn a 71-50 win and a date in Saturday's Western Mass championship game.
Michael Carpenter scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and Lavante Wiggins added 20 and 14 to lead St. Joe back to the sectional final — in what has become an alarmingly similar fashion from the standpoint of Crusaders coach Paul Brindle.
"It's been typical of our team for the last four years: Whenever we get big leads on teams, we seem to go into a funk on both ends of the court," Brindle said. "We lose focus, we take good shots. We just do a lot of things ... because of the lead we had, not because they weren't trying or they weren't hustling or we weren't working hard.
"We just get into these games where we have a big lead and we go into a funk, and it allows teams to get back in the games."
St. Joe had a 17-point lead with four minutes left in the third quarter after Carpenter scored in the post to make it 46-29.
But Lee ran off eight straight to get the lead to single digits for the first time since the first quarter. Heamon Williams had a conventional three-point play and put back an offensive rebound, and Kenneth Rentzel hit a 3 on an assist from Jake LePrevost (team-high 18) to make it 46-37 with just more than a minute left in the third, and it stayed a nine-point game going to the fourth.
Michael Carpenter See more photos here.
But Jon Bianchi and Carpenter hit 3s on St. Joe's first two possessions of the fourth quarter to get the lead back to 15, and the Crusaders never looked back.
St. Joe which started the year 6-2, lost six of its next 10 and finished the regular season 11-8 to earn the tournament's No. 6 seed.
The defending Western Mass champs looked like a much higher seed at the outset of Wednesday's semi.
After weathering an early barrage of three triples by Rentzel, St. Joe took over with a 22-6 run that spanned the first and second quarters.
Wiggins was dominant in the first half, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds before half-time.
"The last couple of games, I've been having to grab extra rebounds," Wiggins said. "It's tournament time, so when tournament time comes, I just have to step it up."
Thanks largely to Wiggins, the Crusaders had a 25-10 advantage on the glass at half-time. But after the break, Lee stepped up and matched St. Joe rebound-for-rebound.
"That was a huge difference," Lee coach Dan Korte said. "Obviously, we talked about it a lot. They were beating us to loose balls, they were beating us to rebounds. There's a lot of intensity on that team, a lot of fire, and they played well in the first half."
Meanwhile, Lee had to adjust to the loss of junior Deaglan Giarolo, who was hurt defending a 3-pointer late in the first quarter, returned briefly but was forced to sit out most of the game. The Wildcats also had to deal with limited production from junior forward Williams, who scored just five points before fouling out midway through the fourth quarter.
Brindle said the Crusaders were keying on Williams.
"You know what, Heamon Williams is a great player," Brindle said. "He can get offensive rebounds. He can score. He can make foul shots. I said, 'You know what? We're going to stop Heamon Williams tonight.' And LePrevost is going to have his normal game, but if we can keep the other players from doing what they can potentially do, we're going to win this game."
Williams will have another chance to get Lee back to the Cage next year as a senior. LePrevost, Rentzel and Nick Sitzer played their final game for the 'Cats on Wednesday night.
"All three of those guys have a lot to keep their heads way high about," Korte said. "They've had fantastic careers. This is the third of their four seasons that have finished here in the Cage, and they had a fantastic year. At one point this year, we were 4-7, and it was questionable whether we'd make the tournament or not. We won 10 out of our last 12 games, and it was a testament to their leadership.
"I couldn't be more proud. I think that kind of leadership helps us this year and helps us int he future, too. We had sophomores and freshmen see how they conduct themselves everyday and can use that as an example going forward."