Crusaders overcome Lake Oswego in 6A semis, advance to title game
The Crusaders are no longer the little engine that could, chugging up the championship mountain.
In fact, Jesuit never was, though the self-described underdog thanks you for the affronts.
Unaccounted for and passed over all season by both pundits and basketball junkies alike, the dark horse Crusaders are Class 6A state championship game bound.
Unflappable offensively and staunch on defense down the stretch, Jesuit overcame a 22-13 halftime deficit and outlasted Lake Oswego in the waning minutes of the fourth to pull out a 52-40 win in the 6A semifinals on March 8 at the Chiles Center.
Jesuit will play in the 6A state title game against Jefferson on Saturday at 3:15 p.m., a feat few could have ever predicted before the season, except the Crusaders themselves.
"I can't even begin to describe the amount of joy I'm feeling," Jesuit junior Matthew Levis said. "From everyone saying 'Hey you guys look a little weak this year, I don't know what's going to happen'...this just proves if we play as a team and we play together and we play our basketball, literally anything is possible with this unit."
"Everybody in that locker room knew from the start of the season that this is where we belong," Jesuit senior guard Will Sheaffer said. "We belong in the championship. I don't think anybody state-wide thought we were going to be here, but we kept believing through the ups and downs of the season. Come playoff time we're playing our best basketball and we don't think anybody stop us. So far, nobody has proved they can. We're just going to keep rolling until it's over."
Collectively, Jesuit downed Lake Oswego, not just a single star. It was Aiden Williams proving he's the best outside shooter in the state, burying big three-pointer after big three-pointer with hands in his face. It was Justin Bieker making critical plays off the bounce, putting his head down against good Laker defense and finishing through contact. There was Roy Bunn coming up with a gargantuan offensive rebound with Jesuit nursing a 39-37 late in the fourth, getting fouled and making two free throws with 1:57 to go in the game. Sheaffer's defense on Lake Oswego star Josh Angle was exceptional throughout, but especially as the game came down the home stretch and the Crusader senior stonewalled the dangerous Laker sniper with barrel-chested defense. Sheaffer made six straight free throws in the final 90 seconds of the fourth as well. Levis was equally critical on defense, mucking up Lake Oswego's offensive possessions, scrapping on the backboards, helping Braden Rice battle with the hulking Fred Harding. Rice earned himself a nod of approval after alligator wrestling with Harding in the paint all game-long, making the larger Laker work for everything he got inside.
In the first half, nobody except Williams could buy a basket. Jesuit didn't score its first hoop of the game until there was a minute left in the first quarter and trailed by as much as 20-7 in the second quarter. The Lakers were the clear aggressor, hitting the offensive boards authoritatively, taking the ball to the rim, executing crisply on offense. But Jesuit loitered around. Williams made an important three and Levis pulled down an offensive board and converted it at the rim to close the gap to 20-13. Lake Oswego led by nine at the half, but as head coach Gene Potter reminded his team in the locker room, Jesuit had just played its worst basketball of the half and only trailed by single digits. Potter, who's pushed all the right buttons all year with this team, was overly positive with his group, knowing they had the firepower and resolve to will itself back into contention.
And in the third, Jesuit righted the ship, looking to its offensive breadwinners Williams and Bieker for production. The senior duo answered the bell, scoring 13 of the Crusaders' 16 third quarter points. Bieker was a problem off the dribble, but he also buried a big three and was fouled on another trey attempt, which resulted in three made free throws. Defensively, Jesuit forced turnovers and empty possessions that allowed its offense to flow. By the time Williams fetched an offensive board kicked it out Levis for a right-wing three in the waning seconds of the third, Jesuit trailed just 31-29.
"We weren't going to let (Lake Oswego) define our future," Levis said. "Our future was in our hands as a group. It wasn't one person. It was all of us together and that's the reason we were able to come back."
"(Potter) really picked us up," Sheaffer said. "By the time he was done talking we were all like 'Let's go do this, let's go win this and get to the championship for each other'. That showed in the third quarter. We came back into the game with a whole new mindset. We weren't scared. We were just playing basketball like we know how. Justin and Aiden stepped up like crazy. Everybody stepped up and did their jobs."
Williams, whose reputation as one of the deadliest outside shooters in the state precedes him at this juncture of his Jesuit tenure, gave the Crusaders their first lead of the game in the fourth, flicking home a right corner three off a Bieker drive-and-kick to go up 32-31. Then Bieker set a screen for Williams and instead of switching out on to the marksman Lake Oswego let Williams all alone on the left wing. And Williams buried his second consecutive triple to go up 35-31.
Lake Oswego stayed close, tying the game up a 37-37 on an and-one three-point play by Wayne McKinney with 3:54 to go. Yet, Jesuit counterpunched with a pivotal 8-0 run, fueled by Bieker putting home a tough off-footed floater and Sheaffer forcing Angle into a missed turnaround jumper on the other end of the court. Williams' ensuing three rimmed out from the left corner but Bunn flew in from the top of the key, grabbed the offensive board, went right back up with the basketball and got fouled in the process. Then the sophomore stepped to the line and made both free throws to give Jesuit a 41-37 lead with 1:57 to go.
And on Lake Oswego's next offensive trip, Bunn crashed down on Harding and stripped the big guy clean, giving possession back to the Crusaders. As the intensity escalated and tempers flared on both sides, Jesuit's cool in executing on both ends of the court was pivotal. Mentally and physically the Crusaders were fresh. The evidence of such stamina was all over the box score. In the second half Jesuit went 16-for-17 at the free throw line and 5-for-12 from three-point land. They hounded McKinney and Harding into nine combined turnovers. Angle and McKinney shot just 7-for-23 from the field, thanks in large part to Sheaffer, Levis and Bunn who bore the brunt of the defensive responsibilities.
"Come fourth quarter time, adrenaline plus the conditioning we already had, I felt like it was the first quarter," Levis said. "I could've gone for another four quarters if I needed to. We knew we had one more quarter to give everything we had. That's the composure we've earned over playing basketball the past five months, that's the conditioning we've done over those five months."
There was certainly no love lost between the two blue-blooded programs as woofing and jawing back and forth took the game's already fighter jet decibel levels to another echelon. Each student section was locked and loaded, lobbing ear-piercing chants at one another that were equally creative, personal and aimed at certain players. For a feud that's not necessarily annual, the Lake Oswego-Jesuit hostilities are starting to pick up and span across all sports.
"To be honest, there's a lot of beef with (Lake Oswego)," Sheaffer said. "You saw that at the end of the game. We're not friends on the court and definitely not friends off it either. It runs deep. We just don't like each other. I don't where it started, but it stays like that. There's been a lot of back-and-forth stuff with Lake Oswego and this win just makes it that much bigger for us."
All year the Crusaders fed on the outside belief they weren't good enough to be in this position, that they weren't big enough, tall enough, sufficiently skilled as Jesuit teams of yesteryear. They've been banded together by that disbelief and bonded over years of playing together in Potter's program, paying their dues as underclassmen, biding their time on the bench, honing their games so that one day an achievement like this was within the realm of possibility. Surely, the Crusaders are in the title bout, but by no means is that chip on their shoulder that's become more of a boulder gone. Jesuit's team bond, battle-tested and bulletproof after years in the foxhole together is tighter than ever too. The Crusaders go into every gym believing they can win any game against anybody.
"Without that chip, we lose reason to play," Levis said. "We're playing for that chip and for each other. That moment we just shared, nothing can take that away from us."
"This is the tightest team I've ever been on," Sheaffer said. "We really do it for each other. We're not out there trying to get ours. We couldn't have done with just one person."
Now Jesuit gets a chance at redemption in the title tilt against the Demos. The Crusaders lost to Jefferson in their season opener in heartbreaking fashion but go into the title game confident as ever. Again, one last time, Jesuit will be the underdog, perhaps by a wide margin. But at this point, you'd be a fool to discount the Crusaders. They're out for blood and one last opportunity to shock the state.
"We're cheering for Jeff, we want to play them," Sheaffer said. "We really feel like we should've won that first game. We obviously did some things late in that game that didn't give us that opportunity, but we have something to prove against those guys and we feel like we can beat them down the stretch."
"I have this sense about me that I've never felt before, it's going to be a game like no other," Levis said. "I've played in some big games, but in this one, literally everything is on the line. It's our last game. I feel like I have to do everything for the seniors, sacrifice my body, my mind so that they can get their last 'W' in a Jesuit uniform."
Williams scored 20 points against Lake Oswego and made 5-of-12 from three. Bieker had 14 points, six boards and two steals. Levis added seven points, two assists and a steal. All eight of Sheaffer's points came at the free throw line, where he was perfect.
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