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Frontenac captures KASSAA senior basketball title

February 16, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Not a lot of people took notice at the time.

“It was a nothing tournament,” Frontenac Falcons coach Suche James said, and though it meant little in the grand scheme of high school basketball, that mid-season event was the setting for a victory over the La Salle Black Knights that made people sit up and take notice — not the least of whom were the Falcons themselves.

“It ended up being the turning point in our season where we said, ‘OK, maybe we can do this,’ and we just went from there,” James said. “We haven’t looked back. We’ve been playing really well since that game.”

That string of fine play extended through Sunday afternoon’s Kingston Area Secondary Schools Athletic Association final, where Frontenac defeated La Salle 55-42 to win the county senior boys championship before a crowd of about 350 at the Queen’s University Athletics and Recreation Centre.

It was something of an upset in that La Salle finished first in the regular season at 9-1, a log that included a 22-point victory over the Falcons in mid-December.

That was then. Buoyed by the victory in that otherwise nondescript tournament, the Falcons didn’t lose another game in league play, and Sunday’s victory made them 3-0 in the playoffs.

“That turned around our season,” James said. “(It showed us) when we stick together and not get down on each other … and do the simple things like rebound the ball, we could beat anybody.

“That was the first time this group saw that.”

As a result the Falcons did not get discouraged Sunday when they fell behind by six points midway through the second quarter, and neither did they panic the three times in the middle of the second half when they would pull ahead by a point or two only to have La Salle come back and tie the game.

That meant they were in position to pounce when the Knights could no longer overcome their depleted lineup. With one guard, Bruce Burns, unable to play with a broken left wrist and another, Nick Ackley, limited to very little floor time because of an eye injury, and two other players, Braden Elliott and Tanner Graham, clearly not themselves because they’d been up Saturday night fighting a nasty stomach bug, La Salle may have been doomed from the start.

“We had some things to overcome and on top of that we just didn’t play well,” Knights coach Karen Graham said. “The defensive intensity wasn’t there. We should have owned the boards with our height but we didn’t.”

La Salle’s touchstone all year has been its outside shooting. When teams tried to cope with brothers Jesse and Tanner Graham with a double team under the basket, the Knights could always count on kicking the ball back outside for a shot that five or six times a game would go through the hoop.

That dynamic wasn’t there Sunday, as La Salle was just 1-for-13 from beyond the three-point arc, and that didn’t count the number of times the shot never got taken because a Frontenac defender was quickly out to challenge the shooter.

That was one of the lessons learned from the early season defeat, James said.

“They out-rebounded us badly and we didn’t defend the three-point line well (that day),” he said, adding that quickly became the focus of subsequent practices.

“(Boxing out) is something we just got better and better at,” James said, by way of explaining how a team that was, almost man for man, shorter than its opponent could prevail the way it did under the glass.

“We were terrible in December; we were just awful doing that. It was something that we needed to do more in practice and it paid off today.”

The first quarter was close throughout, with Frontenac leading by four at one point and the Knights ahead by three at the end. La Salle’s biggest lead, six points, was in the second quarter but the advantage was just two, 23-21, at halftime.

When Cole Busschaert converted a three-point play at the start of the third quarter for La Salle, the lead was back to five points but the Knights couldn’t extend the margin. The score was tied three different times in the period and a basket at the buzzer by Frontenac’s Aidan Stride sent the Falcons into the fourth quarter with a 33-32 lead.

The game was tied again at 35 until Tristan Halladay and Raymond Hoadley hit back-to-back three pointers for Frontenac. The Falcons led 43-38 with two minutes to play.

That’s when Stride started sealing La Salle’s casket shut.

Fouling to regain possession of the ball, the Knights sent Stride to the free-throw line five times in the final 100 seconds, each time in a bonus situation. In a span of 44 seconds he made nine of 10 shots to make the Frontenac lead an insurmountable 10 points.

“He’s been our inspirational leader throughout,” James said. “He is a very special point guard. There’s always a special kid on the court on a championship team and he’s ours.

“In the Holy Cross (semifinal) game when we were down 11-0, he was the kid that decided, ‘OK, I’m going to have to start this up and get going,’ and that’s what he did. Today was the same thing. He ended the game today with his foul shooting. He’s mentally and physically tough. There’s nothing more to say about him than that.”

It was a bitter defeat for La Salle, which had been considered the class of the league from the start of the season. Instead, the loss extended the school’s senior championship drought to 26 years.

“I knew something was wrong with us the whole game,” Graham said. “It felt like that. I wanted them to bust loose and they just couldn’t. We came out so flat in the third quarter. After halftime I knew we were in trouble.”

Stride finished the game with 16 points for Frontenac, while Halladay scored 14 and Carter Matheson added 13. Jesse Graham scored a game-best 18 points — 14 of them in the first half — for La Salle, while Tanner Graham had 11 and Busschaert added nine, all in the second half.

Both teams will advance to Eastern Ontario Secondary Schools Athletic Association play this week, where the region’s OFSAA entries will be determined.

La Salle will go to the six-team AA tournament in Pembroke Thursday and Friday, while Frontenac’s triple-A championship game with Thousand Islands of Brockville will be played Thursday, at either Frontenac or Holy Cross.

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