The St. Jean de Brebeuf Braves have advanced to the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association senior boys’ high school basketball final one year ahead of schedule.
The young Braves punched their ticket to the Feb. 20 championship game at McMaster University with a hard-fought 52-49 road victory over the first-place St. Thomas More Knights on Thursday (Feb. 13).
“The majority of our team is Grade 11,” said Brebeuf coach Perry Bruzzese. “We’re ahead of schedule, but we’re not going to take it for granted. We’ve got the opportunity at hand. We’ll give it our best shot.”
Brebeuf’s next opponent will be the two-time defending HWCAA champion Cardinal Newman Cardinals, who defeated the visiting St. Mary Crusaders 45-31 in the league’s other semi-final.
What proved to be the winning basket was scored by Bruzzese’s son, Nathan, a 5-foot-10 guard who went up strong for an offensive rebound and scored on the putback with 25 seconds left. That gave Brebeuf a 50-49 lead. Centre Veron Kalonji then drained two foul shots with two seconds on the clock to complete the scoring.
“They are a gritty bunch of young guys,” said coach Mark Moretuzzo, whose Knights were coming off an opening-round bye. “Give them credit for winning two big games on the road this week.”
On Tuesday, sixth-place Brebeuf knocked off the third-place Cathedral Gaels, 52-49.
Brebeuf led 14-11, 27-26 and 39-32 at the quarter breaks before padding their advantage to 12 points early in the fourth quarter. At that point, however, the Knights got hot from long range and went on a run. They connected on four straight three-point baskets (two by Joel Clarke and one each by Jaylen Clarke and Ryan Doornick) to grab the lead with 1:45 to play.
Said Bruzzese: “We weren’t dejected after falling behind. As young as we are, we had the confidence. We kept our composure and did what was necessary to pull out the victory.”
Rommel Calura led the Brebeuf attack with 15 points. Mohan Kazi contributed eight points, while Kalonji had seven and Lucas Johnson and Justin DiPietro added five apiece.
Joel Clarke, with 16, Jaylen Clarke, with 13, and Doornick, with 11, were the top scorers for St. Thomas More.
“Very disappointing,” Moretuzzo said. “I thought we put ourselves in a position to win. This one got away.
“In the last minute we had the ball in our best ball handler’s hands. He went to the hole and got called on an offensive foul for pushing off which gave them the ball back. We disagreed with the call but, as I told the kids, we’ve been on the opposite side of that.”
Kazi, who opened the scoring in both the first and fourth quarters with a three-point basket, praised the entire Brebeuf coaching staff for the win. “It was a really good coaching job,” the transfer guard from Sir Allan MacNab said. “They gave us the belief. We’ve got four great coaches who helped us so much. They gave us the right plays at the right time. They told us what to do and we just followed the game plan.”
It was a personally satisfying win for Kazi because he was ruled to be an ineligible player earlier this season, forcing the Braves to forfeit four of their victories. At season’s end, their record was a less-than impressive 3-9.
“I felt bad,” Kazi said of the league penalty which for a while landed Brebeuf in the basement of the seven-team league standings. He came to Brebeuf in the second semester of his Grade 11 year but an administrative error was made and his transfer sheets were not submitted in time.
“I think that really helped us,” Kazi said of the forfeitures. “We developed stronger as a team.”
According to Bruzzese, Kazi has matured as a true point guard during the course of the season.
“He’s become smarter,” the Braves head coach said. “He’s like a quarterback on the court for us. So we rely on him not only to break the pressure and bring the ball up, but to get us in our offence and get us in our set. At the beginning of the year, he was looking to do it on his own. He’s become a real team player.”
The Braves had a recent team meeting at which time it was pointed out that standings don’t mean anything come playoff time.
“We were sixth,” Bruzzese said. “All that tells us is who we have to play first. It just so happens that we’ve got to go through the top three in the league to win it all.”
Second-place Newman got 13 points by Tristan Bromfield and 11 by Marko Grahovac in its victory over fourth-place St. Mary. David McCulloch added nine points and eight assists for the Cardinals.
St. Mary replied with 16 points by Shawn Carey and seven by Mat Elcock.
The championship game on Feb. 20 begins at 7:30 p.m. It follows the HWCAA midget and junior boys’ basketball title matches at 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., respectively.