Down by 3 points against Br. Rice, St. Rita had just 6 seconds left in the game to inbound the ball, get up the court and score.
Ready to defend as the Crusaders prepared to hold off a late charge was Br. Rice senior guard Brandon Bryant, and he knew where the ball was going.
St. Rita senior Christian Henry, Bryant’s longtime friend and former teammate at Vanderpoel Academy, was now racing up the court to take a big shot on the wing.
Closely guarded by Bryant, Henry narrowly missed his 3-point attempt.
Even though St. Rita scored on the rebound as the buzzer sounded, Bryant and his teammates escaped with a thrilling 49-48 win against the Mustangs and one of his best friends.
“Christian is a really good player,” Bryant said. “We’ve practiced and played together, so I knew he was going to come down and take a big shot. I contested it as best I could.”
Br. Rice (13-1, 12-1) had lost to DePaul Prep on March 8. The Crusaders needed the win against St. Rita to stay in the hunt for a share of the CCL-Blue title.
On March 13, Br. Rice won a makeup game at St. Laurence, 69-45, to clinch a share of the title with Fenwick.
It’s the first CCL championship for the Crusaders since 2017.
Br. Rice senior Cullen Cosme said he’d been waiting for that day.
“We haven’t done it in my four years here,” Cosme said. “That’s been the goal since Day One. With no playoffs, no state tournament, we put our mind to winning the league.”
Leading the balanced attack for Br. Rice against St. Rita were seniors Bryant (12 points), Cosme (11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists), Luke Moustakas (11 points, 7 rebounds) and Frank Cunnea (7 points).
Trailing 37-36 to start a tense fourth quarter, the Crusaders received contributions from all over the court.
Keeping a possession alive, Cunnea (St. Catherine of Alexandria) ripped down a rebound amongst St. Rita’s imposing frontline and kicked the ball out to Moustakas on the wing. Cunnea then drifted to the corner to take a pass from Moustakas. He then swished the 3 to regain the lead.
Later, Cunnea, a 6’4” forward, scored after a nice back cut to the hoop where Cosme (Christ the King) found him with a sweet pass for the bucket, making it 44-41 with 1:42 left.
“On the 3, I didn’t see anybody on me,” Cunnea said. “I practice that shot every day, so I knew I could step in and be confident with the ball. We knew they’ve got 6’7”, 6’8”, 6’8” all the way across the lineup. If we could create some space, we’d be OK. We shoot a lot of threes; so, chase down long rebounds and get the ball, and we have a chance.”
Bryant provided the all-important free throw late, splitting two attempts with 10 seconds left.
“Our thing in the locker room is ‘toughness,’” Bryant said. “We were down 5 in the third, but we kept fighting and had a positive outlook in the huddle. It’s tough to win the CCL, but we can compete with anybody.”
Cosme converted a key 3-point play on another back cut to the basket in the fourth. His free throw put Br. Rice up 42-41, a lead the Crusaders held the rest of the way.
“We all just play together. No one does too much,” Cosme said. “We pick each other up and, in the end, hold it together, execute on offense and defense, get our stops and come out with the win.”
In the victory over St. Laurence, sophomore powerhouse Ahmad Henderson finished with 21 points, assisted by Moustakas (19 points) and Bryant (14 points).
St. Rita’s young squad finished the season 4-8. Against Br. Rice, Henry (5 points) and four freshmen started for the Mustangs.
Leading St. Rita were freshmen Morez Johnson (12 points), J.B. Brown (10 points, 5 rebounds), Jaedin Reyna (9 points) and Joshua Pickett (6 points) and sophomore Bryce Coleman (6 points).
“In terms of our youth, the goal was to get better this year,” said St. Rita Coach Roshawn Russell. “We knew we would struggle a little bit. We have a lot to learn, but I’m truly proud of our guys to come in on the road against a rival and take it down to the wire. It says a lot about our team sticking together through tough times.”
Russell said he would have liked the chance to see what his young Mustangs would have accomplished in the usual state postseason series.
“We could have been a scary matchup in the playoffs,” he said. “As this team grows, we’re going to be very scary. This group is as special as advertised.”