MONROEVILLE - When the Bishop Carroll Catholic boys basketball team was steamrolling opponents by 50 and 60 points this season, Husky coach Cosie Aliquo had his starters and key subs getting prepared for a day when the games would be much more challenging.
"We practice sometimes against seven guys. We go five-on-seven, just to make them go at it. We'll go to the foul line. We'll go up five, down five," Aliquo said. "We would go five-on-seven and said, 'You have 40 seconds left. We're down two. We're up five.' We had to go through every scenario possible."
It was that kind of foresight that had the Huskies prepared and able to keep their poise amid the adversity and pressure in a packed Henry J. Furrie Sports Complex at Gateway High School on Friday night. It was that kind of foresight that enabled Carroll to move to 28-0 and into the PIAA Class A semifinals with a 63-59 overtime win against Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.
It was only the fifth time this season Carroll has played a game decided by fewer than 16 points, but the Huskies seemed right at home. They didn't panic when North Catholic was able to impose its tempo in the first half to take a five-point halftime lead. They didn't rush things when the Trojans turned a 10-point hole into a three-point lead with around 2 minutes to go and BC big man Marcus Lee out of the game with five fouls. They didn't lose their composure when they needed Brandon Martinazzi to hit a deep jumper from the corner as time expired in the fourth quarter, nor did they sulk when the junior guard's shot that originally appeared to be a game-winning 3 was ruled a 2.
The Huskies just kept plugging away until Scott Lucas got a rebound and made a free throw with 2.6 seconds left in overtime to ice the game.
"We were just trying to keep our heads in the game, not let the attention and the little stuff get to us," Lucas said. "We just wanted to play our game, keep going, never give up."
Senior point guard David Maruca had a remarkable observation about his Huskies' attitude.
"We just kind of played like we had nothing to lose the whole game," Maruca said. "Even though it could have been our last game, we weren't thinking that at all. We just gave it our all, 100 percent effort the whole time.
"That's the attitude we have to take, because, if you go in there not wanting to lose instead of wanting to win, that's when you get in trouble."
That might be hard to grasp when your team not only is riding a 27-game winning streak but was trying to get through the quarterfinals after getting eliminated in this round a season ago and was thought by most to be the favorite entering the contest.
How the Huskies were able to ride the waves of emotion without losing their focus and getting swept away was hard for the players to explain, but that undeniably was as much an asset in the victory as any physical trait, like size, speed or shooting ability.
"It's hard, but I think we do it well as a team. We play together. That's what we like to do," Lucas said. "We've been playing together for awhile. We know each other. We trust in each other."
It probably didn't hurt the Huskies that they'd just been in another tight game with Monessen and had to fight to hold off Bishop Guilfoyle to win the District 6 championship two weeks ago by three points. Carroll also was in a couple of similar games in last year's interdistricts, beating WPIAL champion Vincentian and then falling to Lincoln Park after mounting a big comeback.
"Those big-time games, after you play a couple of them, you have a feel for them, and you don't let the pressure get to you," Lucas, the only new starter on this year's squad, said. "We just felt there's no pressure on us. It's on everybody else, because we did what we wanted this year."
Although it was a single-A game at a quad-A gymnasium, Carroll fans and Husky followers from other District 6 and 5 schools packed it and created a raucous environment for which BC players to draw energy.
"There was a lot of pressure, a lot of emotion, but the crowd helps," said Maruca, who made 6-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime. "We can ride their emotion. We had a great turnout, especially coming the whole way to Monroeville."
Lucas said Aliquo deserved a measure of credit for keeping the team from getting too caught up in the atmosphere or the ups and downs of the game.
"We trust our coach. He knows what he's doing. He did a great job at halftime calming us down, telling us to have more effort. That really got to us, so we came out like a ball of fire," Lucas said. "He was pretty calm. He had to raise his voice a little bit. He did great at keeping us calm and controlling our emotions."
Aliquo said his approach is to be more critical in practice than in the games.
"In practice I get on them about turnovers, but, during a game it's a different emotion. You don't want them to sink their head. No," Aliquo said. "My guys turn that ball over and miss foul shots, very seldom do you see me scream and holler at them. I try to boost them up and tell them to move on to the next play. That's just our motto. That comes from our leadership. That's three captains [Maruca, Lee and Mitchell Madonna] that have been my captains for three years, and then you've got Brandon and Scotty Lucas."
The Huskies seem to have found a way to embrace being on the bigger stage and grow instead of wilting under the hot spotlight.
"It's awesome. I've been really fortunate these last two years. Pretty much nobody gets an opportunity to play in games like this," Maruca said. "And two straight years, too."
"These guys just don't give up," Aliquo said. "Seriously, Marcus fouls out in the fourth quarter with 2 minutes to go. I'm kind of like looking. But they just don't give up."
Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.