Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
BETHLEHEM — Al Callejas figured if his Holy Cross club could hang around long enough — and not fall too far behind — they just might have a chance to pull off something memorable.
Yet even as Saturday’s contest played out and Callejas’ Crusaders were still down yet continuing to scratch, claw and battle, those bright, sizable specks of optimism may have begun to be shadowed by some ominous clouds.
As it turns out, Callejas needn’t have been worried.
Backed by a vocal gathering that trucked in from Scranton and its collection of suburbs — an animated group that grew louder and louder and louder as the festivities played out in front of them — Holy Cross shrugged off the 10-point deficit that stood late in the third quarter of the Class 2A quarterfinal and rallied for a 71-58 victory over Math, Civics & Sciences Saturday afternoon at Liberty High School’s Memorial Gymnasium.
Tyler Mozeleski poured in 26 points and Pat Galvin backed him with 20 more as Callejas’ blue-collared Crusaders (23-6) hustled to their 20th straight victory and earned themselves a trip to Tuesday night’s semifinals and a date with returning finalist Constitution at a site and time to be determined.
Constitution eliminated Moravian Academy 83-73 in another quarterfinal-round clash.
Kieran Burrier and Tommy Montefour also reached double digits for the District 2 champions, scoring 12 and 10 points, respectively, as Holy Cross fought off the 53-43 lead that MCS sported with 1:44 to play in the third quarter following Kwahzere Ransom’s floater in the lane.
Semaj Mills paced Math, Civics & Sciences (16-14) with 21 points — Mills rang up 17 in the first half as the Mighty Elephants used terrific shooting and pressure defense to construct a 40-31 advantage — while Jihad “Squid” Watson tacked on 14 more and Tealang Lloyd finished with nine.
Determined not to fall deep in arrears after Constitution's early effectiveness had them well back in last year’s second round, Holy Cross trailed by no more than 11 points in the first half and, despite several bursts that would up the excitement level temporarily, the Crusaders were still down 10 late in the third.
“In the days we had to practice to get ready for this game, that was the plan,” Callejas admitted. “Not to get in a big hole and to keep it close. If we kept it close, I really liked our chances.
“They’re a very good team. And the big fear was if they go on a big run early, because they’re capable of going on those kinds of runs, [we might be in trouble],” added Callejas, whose Crusaders trailed 23-14 after one quarter. “I didn’t like the score at the end of the first quarter, because we just can’t play like that. They might score in the 90s, but we weren’t going to.”
While Mozeleski cut into the lead by polishing off a conventional three-point play, the slashing Watson answered with a finish at the rack. Moments later, off a Burrier inbounds pass, Mozeleski canned a 3-ball from the left corner that had the Crusaders bouncing in the huddle between periods.
“That was a huge momentum swing in the game,” Mozeleski said. “You could see us all run into the huddle and we’re still together. We knew they were starting to break down.
“We knew we had to pour it out on defense, get to the basket and make shots.”
Mozeleski’s triple — one of his five on the afternoon — also triggered a 16-0 outburst that obliterated the Crusaders’ double-digit deficit and propelled them in front (62-55) with 3:37 to go when the gritty 6-0 junior swished both ends of a one-and-one stay at the foul line.
“Once he started feeling it, the crowd got into it, it lifted our team up and we certainly had a good feeling,” Callejas admitted. “He was outstanding today, on both ends of the floor.”
Math, Civics & Sciences, which played without head coach Dan Jackson (work-related conflict), never was able to respond. While the Mighty Elephants cashed in at nearly 64 percent through the first three quarters (21-for-33), they never connected from the floor in the final eight-plus minutes.
“That hasn’t happened ever,” said MCS athletic director and assistant coach Lonnie Diggs, who ran the Mighty Elephants with Jackson unavailable.
All they managed was three free throws in six attempts.
“We’ve been to the semifinals or championship the last seven years,” Diggs added. “We look forward to coming back next year. We’ve got to get better at some things.
Still, the other guys had something to do with the ultimate outcome.
The zone Holy Cross pitched was one sizable factor. And when the Mighty Elephants tried to penetrate and were cut off, wild misses and turnovers occurred repeatedly. Callejas’ Crusaders also snuffed out second- and third-chance opportunities, outboarding the District 12 champs 28-14.
“We stressed in the locker room and it’s on the board about seven times, just saying, ‘BOX OUT,’” Mozeleski revealed. “That was definitely the key to keeping them off the boards.”
Holy Cross also maintained its lead — and added to it — by sinking 11 of 14 freebies in the fourth quarter while outscoring Math, Civics & Sciences 22-3.
Maybe the green edges on Holy Cross’ predominantly black uniforms played some sort of role since it was Saint Patrick’s Day, but outworking the Mighty Elephants likely had more to do with the Crusaders’ latest dub than anything — even though Callejas’ crew committed 20 turnovers.
So did the dribble-drive stuff that Holy Cross executed once it was able to get Math, Civics & Sciences to come out and guard perimeter shooters — Galvin, Montefour and Burrier also added treys to the handful that Mozeleski knocked down — as the Crusaders were able to spread the floor and get to the basket repeatedly.
Shots that were falling early for the Mighty Elephants early — all seven of Math, Civics & Sciences’ 3-pointers arrived in the first half as the Philly Public League entry built a 40-31 lead — failed to tumble after the break and especially late as the Crusaders dug in with passion.
MCS’ pressure also didn’t have the same effect after the break.
“We made seven 3s in the first half and that’s not usually us,” Diggs recalled. “I literally said this at halftime, ‘We’re not gonna make seven 3s in the second half’.’ Our game is defense and transition.
“Once we didn’t get any defensive stops in the second half, it just went downhill.”
It also didn’t hurt Holy Cross that Mozeleski and Galvin each scored 14 points in the second half while the Mighty Elephants suddenly saw their fortunes take a devilish U-turn.
“That’s how you’ve got to beat these teams, you have to frustrate them to the point where they don’t know what to do,” Mozeleski said. “We knew that they were more athletic than us and we knew that they were quicker than us, but we knew if we used our basketball IQ and we used our smarts and we get to the basket just far enough and dished it to another guy for a layup, we knew that’s how we were going to have to get our points.”
Add it all up and it was Holy Cross that received a sizable ovation from those still on hand as they emerged from their ecstatic locker room and headed for the bus.
“We did all the things we needed to do today to win,” admitted Callejas, whose Crusaders connected on 25 of their 43 field-goal attempts and on eight of their 12 treys. “We shot 60 percent or something like that. That’s the kind of game we had to play in order to win and fortunately we did.”
“Credit to them, they came well-prepared,” Diggs said. “We just didn’t make enough plays today.”
It has been five seasons since Callejas guided a Crusaders group featuring 6-7 Josh Kosin in the middle to the Class AA state semifinals — and eventually the championship game — but this much-smaller bunch has the same opportunity following their come-from-behind effort.
Only two of the seven players Callejas sent on the floor even stand 6-0 — yet they play hard and they play with passion and they play with a desire that has them one win from playing in a state title game.
“We have to come out and play Constitution the same way we played tonight,” Mozeleski admitted. “Just play Holy Cross basketball. Playing a style of basketball that not many other teams can replicate. Just being calm with the press, staying poised, boxing out, holding them to one shot and making shots when we need to and we can win. If it’s a low-scoring game, I think we have a better chance to win.”
The Crusaders certainly will come to play and play hard.
“That’s been the character of this group all year long,” Callejas said, referring to the Crusaders’ work ethic. “We show them the game plan and things like that and we watch a lot of film — and they’re not always crazy about all the film we watch — but they understand and then they come out and execute.
“It shows a great deal of maturity and this team has improved leaps and bounds since mid-December. Once they get that feel, you can feel the confidence building.”