Austin Petolillo (@AustinPSports)
To put it plain and simple, Faith Christian was tired of losing to Girard College in big games.
Last season, Faith Christian played Girard College in both the District 1 Class A championship game, and in the PIAA Class A state semifinal game and lost both of them.
Both of the losses were painful given the circumstances. The Lions got blown out 72-40 in the District final and in the state semifinal, Faith Christian and Girard were locked in a battle.
Then the final 4:16 of the game happened.
“We turned the ball over four possessions in a row, and they scored on each of their possessions and won the ball game,” Faith Christian head coach Tony DaCosta said. “Prior to that it was 51-51, so we let them off the hook in a lot of ways because we self-destructed.”
Heading into the 2017-18 season, Faith Christian prepared to make sure that if a crucial situation like that were to occur, they were fully prepared for it.
That moment came on Saturday in the District 1 Class A championship game against guess who, Girard College. This time, the Lions got the better of the Cavaliers thanks to one big shot.
With four seconds left on the clock in overtime, Faith Christian senior forward Sawyer Smith caught Girard College’s star forward Mikeal Jones on a pump-fake on the left wing and drove to the hoop to give Faith Christian a 48-46 victory and the district title.
“Don’t miss, that’s what was going through my mind,” Smith said. “I had an open shot, pump fake, Mikeal jumped so I took my opening and fortunately I made it to win the game.”
The win gives Faith Christian its first-ever district championship in school history. Finally, the Lions can put a banner up on the wall alongside some of the school’s other sports district titles.
“We’ve won plenty in soccer, so we made sure we had to get ours this time,” DaCosta said. “We got baseball, we got soccer, now we got basketball.”
After seeing two of their tournament runs end at the hands of Girard College last season, winning this title against the Cavaliers makes it much sweeter.
“We were really pushing to beat Girard this year,” senior wing Landon Coyle said. “We had a salty taste in our mouth from last year and to finally meet them again in the district finals and to get revenge against them was great.”
“The mindset was totally different this year,” Smith said. “We’ve been training for this for a long time, since last year’s defeat, we’ve been waiting for Girard to go up against, so we came through this time.”
Smith scored eight of his team-high 14 points in the overtime period, and that turned out to be all of Faith Christian’s points in the overtime.
“My teammates were giving me good looks,” Smith said. “Just got a good opportunity in front of the basket, so I had to finish them off for them.”
Smith missed about a month of action due to a hand injury and while he was rehabbing the injury, DaCosta had Smith do one thing while on the mend.
“The days we had games and had practice, he just conditioned and I kept him in shape because I wanted his transition back to the floor to be seamles,s and it was so I’m not surprised.” DaCosta said.
The 6-foot-7 Smith returned on Feb. 15 for the Bicentennial Athletic League championship game against Christopher Dock , a game in which they lost 56-53 in overtime.
Faith Christian’s record is 25-2, with its first loss coming against Pennridge in the first game of the season. After that, the Lions rattled off 23 straight victories before losing in the league championship game.
“That was instrumental because we lost and we had a chance to check ourselves and say what didn’t go right in those games,” DaCosta said. "So we took the loss like we’ve taken every loss and built on them. Every time we had failure, we’ve learned from them and we’ve made them successes.”
Faith Christian got into trouble in the second quarter when two of its best players, Smith and Coyle, had to sit most of the quarter due to fouls.
In stepped sophomore forward Owen Bradford. Bradford filled in nicely as he scored 10 points, six of them coming in the second quarter.
“I knew it was a big game and I needed to come in and play my part and do whatever I could to help contribute to the game.” Bradford said
“I think people don’t understand that having depth on a team is so crucial because you have injuries and people getting in foul trouble, different things happen.” DaCosta said.
Coyle’s contributions came at the most vital time as he scored eight points, six of them (two 3-pointers) coming in the fourth quarter, when he was playing with four fouls.
“You just have to play smarter when you’re in foul trouble because the team needs you on the floor so that’s what I tried to do and I was able to stay in the game for the rest of the game.” Coyle said.
Faith Christian overcame a 22-point, eight-rebound effort from Jones and held Girard senior guard Rodney Carson to seven points.
Up next for the Lions and the Cavaliers is a trip to the state tournament where their respective opponents are still to be determined.
After taking over the boys program in 2013, DaCosta’s first two seasons as head coach saw the Lions finish with a combined record of 16-31. In the three seasons since, Faith Christian has gone 70-14 and now has a title to call its own after losing in the BAL, districts and states the past five seasons.
Smith, who has been with the program for four years, has seen the team go through the good and the bad. His head coach is proud of not just the type of player, but the person he's been for the program.
“He’s a great kid, he’s the type of kid I want my daughter to marry,” DaCosta said. “If you look in the dictionary, that’s Mr. All-American, but I’m happy for him and his family because he’s been here when we were good and he’s been here when we were bad and now he’s seeing a lot of the good.”
Smith said he had some schools interested in him for basketball but when he visited their campuses, he wasn’t too fond of the schools. He is planning on attempting to walk-on at Division II Palm Beach Atlantic University, where he wants to major in elementary education and minor in advertising.
After hitting his first game-winner at any level of basketball, Smith couldn’t help but smile when recounting the moments after he hit the winning shot.
“It was just euphoria,” Smith said. “I’ve been waiting for this for my whole high school career and this is the peak.”
“If we can just keep on going through states, hopefully we can get the same result in the state championship.” he added.