The stage is set now for the last high school hoops battle in Manitoba, two teams going in to Monday night's AAAA final with a little bit of history on the line.
On one side will be the St. Paul's Crusaders, hungry to complete a three-sport sweep for their school, and fight for their first AAAA basketball title. The Cru earned their final berth on Friday night, blazing out an 88-75 win over the Sisler Spartans at the University of Manitoba's Investors Group Athletic Centre.
Facing them across the court: The proud Glenlawn Lions, a decade removed from their last provincial championship.
"We want it really bad, you could see it in our eyes tonight," said Glenlawn guard Mitch Podworny on Friday night, after his team survived a late comeback push from the MBCI Hawks to win their semifinal 90-82. "We're not stopping here. We're going to take it."
Still, for an instant in that semifinal game, it was far from certain the Lions would make it. True, the Glenlawn crew carved out a comfortable early lead over the Hawks, soaring 21 points over MBCI deep into the third quarter, while their rowdy fans roared in the stands.
But in the fourth quarter, the Hawks lit it up, attacking Glenlawn with everything they had, and midway through the frame MBCI guard Torrez McKoy potted a free-throw to give his team a 70-69 lead.
What followed was a nail-biter, as the teams traded a few deuces before Glenlawn once again opened up the lead. In the end, they outshot and out-grabbed the Hawks just enough to win, with points spread throughout their lineup. Six Lions finished with points in the double digits, including Podworny, forward Ian Schaefer, guard Keiran Zziwa -- eight steals, eight rebounds and 17 points -- Esteban Gomez and Patrick Flaten.
"All season, we've talked about surviving ebbs and flows," Glenlawn coach Jonathan Wolfe said, as fans rushed onto the floor to celebrate with the team. "At halftime, I said... these guys are gonna come back. They're gonna go on a run. I didn't think they were going to come back from 21, but we've talked about this all year. This game is a game of runs, and this team just survives in these situations. I'm really proud of these guys for that."
Now, the only team left to survive is the Crusaders. The Glenlawn crew is "comfortable" against St. Paul's, Wolfe said, having battled and beaten them during the season. But the Crusaders are hungry to prove themselves too: St. Paul's athletes hammered their way to a Winnipeg High School Football League championship in the fall, then battled to a win over River East in the provincial high school hockey championships earlier this week.
"I think it would mean a lot to our school right now, because basketball is really not considered one of St. Paul's main sports," said Billy Yaworsky, the Crusaders' standout 6-6 guard. "To win a championship, that would be a really big deal to us."
The Crusaders will carry the momentum of Friday night's big win into the final, a win orchestrated on the back of a huge start. St. Paul's outscored the Spartans 29-16 in the first quarter, though the teams both scored 59 points through the other three frames. Despite the best efforts of Sisler standouts Denzel Soliven (22 points), Joseph Medrano (17 points) and Josh Delos Reyes (15 points), the Spartans couldn't dig their way out of the hole.
The Crusaders were led by Yaworsky, who potted 21 points and hauled in 12 rebounds, forward Alec Bernier, who potted fully half of his 10 three-point attempts, cashing in for 21 points and nine boards, and forward Josh Sleva, who scored 20 and snatched up six rebounds. Sisler struggled to break free from the Crusaders' lanky defensive depth; St. Paul's gobbled up 72.9 per cent of rebounds in their own end.
"I think our size really wore them down over the course of the game," Crusaders coach Jeff Laping said. "We always seemed to be fresh, and really made them work for everything they got."
Before the boys' final at 8 p.m. on Monday, the Sisler Spartan girls hoops squad will face the Vincent Massey Trojans for the top girls provincial championship. That game is slated to start at 6 p.m. at Investors Group Athletic Centre.