Pinetree's Solomon Anim (left) and the rest of Coquitlam's Timberwolves fell to Michael Risi and the Holy Cross Crusaders in the Fraser Valley's sudden-elimination seventh-place game Feb. 25 at the Langley Events Centre. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of
Feature High School Boys Basketball

Holy Cross: Not your average No. 14 seed, Surrey’s preseason No. 1 Crusaders prep for North Van’s No. 3 Handsworth Royals

LANGLEY — If you determined your viewing schedule for the opening day of the 2018 B.C. senior boys AAAA basketball championships by seed number, then you might just gloss over the 3:30 p.m. game being played at the Langley Events Centre’s showcase Arena Bowl.

After all, with three other tiers staging sudden-elimination games that day in the rest of the LEC’s sprawling hoops layout, why stick around for a game between the 16 team field’s No. 3 and 14 seeds?

Because Surrey’s Holy Cross Crusaders are maybe the most unlikely No. 14 seed in the 73-year history of the event.

With the vast majority of its team back from the one that  last season made a run to the B.C. Final Four, and with a preseason No. 1 ranking, Holy Cross may not have lived up to its preseason prognostication.

Yet they remain as dangerous a team as there is lurking within the under-belly (bottom 8) of the draw, and are very clearly a team that the Howe Sound champion and No. 3-ranked Handsworth Royals won’t be taking for granted.

The enigmatic Crusaders (25-7), who needed to play the second half of their season eight days ago at the LEC to rally past Coquitlam’s Pinetree Timberwolves and grab the Fraser Valley’s final berth to provincials, have, within a schedule full of blue-chip, ranked AAAA opposition, lost their share of games.

Yet they beat No. 5 seed and Lower Mainland champion Vancouver College 61-52 in the B.C. Catholic Schools championship final, and they beat No. 4 seed W.J. Mouat Hawks twice, including an 80-75 triumph which came after three overtimes on the final day of the Terry Fox Legal Beagle Invitational in mid January.

And there has been no better example of the team’s ability to snap out of its doldrums better than it’s sudden-elimination 83-68 win over Pinetree.

The Crusaders trailed by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, but when Holy Cross pressed and created a steal which led to a Jamal Osei-Anim pull-up three with 25.6 seconds left in that frame, they led 59-57, turning a 28-point swing into a 15-point victory.

Accomplishing similar feats of rally won’t be anywhere near as easy against a very tough, skilled and physical Handsworth Royals team.

Holy Cross lost to Handsworth 69-63 way back on Nov. 30 in the opening round of Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Kodiak Classic.

And while the Crusaders have had their ups and downs since, the Royals, 21-4 overall on the season, have lost just once in 2018, that an 80-65 setback Jan. 30 at No. 2 seed Tamanawis of Surrey. Handsworth’s others losses? They fell twice to Burnaby South and once to Kits, all in December.

Ben Grant, Blake McLean, Stanley Choo and Josh Butler have combined to average 48.6 points-per-game for Handsworth.

Yet the Crusaders have no shortage of fleet-footed, pace-pushing thoroughbreds in Marcus Garcia, Osei-Anim and Gabe Takeawoa and players with an inside-outside presence in Uyi Ologhola and Michael Risi.

Ask Crusaders’ head coach Anthony Pezzente what button was pushed to get his team to roll past Pinetree in the second half of their qualifier, and he leans on an axiom that Arena Bowl’s main occupants, the Vancouver Giants, might use when a slump hits.

“To steal a hockey expression, we sometimes squeeze our sticks a little too tight,” Pezzente said right after the team’s last win, referencing his team’s play over the first half against the Timberwolves. “But when we relax and when just play, we are fantastic, and we can play with anybody and beat anybody. When we’re tight, we’re just average at best.

“Before the game we said ‘What are we saving ourselves for?’” added Pezzente. “There is literally no tomorrow.”

If you think about it, they survived the first test to arrive at provincials, and from this point forward, each and every game on the championship side of the draw this week at the LEC carries the same pressure.

And maybe it’s that pressure that brings out the best in Holy Cross.

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