The Cavaliers lost three seniors from last season’s magical run to the NCAA national championship game. That left a majority of this season’s roster with full knowledge of what their possible capabilities.
But before thinking on a national level, the Cavaliers needed to take care of business within the conference. They did just that for the fourth straight season, beating Keystone College on Friday, Feb. 22, in the CSAC Final by a score of 90-74.
“This is what we’ve been practicing for and playing for all year,” fifth-year head coach Marcus Kahn said. “I think there was some pressure involved with it this year because I think there was much more expectation.”
The Cavs started off strong, opening up the game with a 13-4 run. The lead was dwindled down to four points with 12 minutes left in the half before the Cavs built it back to eight at halftime.
The second half opened featured high intensity and much more physical play. The lead fell to six points early in the half. But back-to-back threes by senior Jeremy Knowles put the Cavs ahead by double digits again.
“It’s basketball. It’s a contact sport,” sophomore Aaron Walton-Moss said. “At the end of the game, when you’re down, everybody’s going to go hard. When you’re up, you don’t want to go down. It’s a lot different when you go from up 10 or 12 to down three or four.”
Junior Fran Rafferty added a huge three from the corner with under seven to play that re-established an 11-point lead. But Keystone would not go quietly as the lead was reduced to six after a layup by Duncan Lunsford was made and drew a foul.
The Cavs would put the game away for good with three straight layups off turnovers. Knowles grabbed a loose ball under the basket for the first. A.J. Williams scored on the other two off two-on-one fastbreaks.
That would ice the game as the Cavs finished off the Giants with free throws to clinch the CSAC title for the fourth straight season.
However, this is just the first step for the Cavs, who have their sights set on a much larger stage.
“This is a little step in something that we’re trying to do,” Walton-Moss said. “We’re trying to go far. We’re trying to go to Atlanta and play in the big dance. This is just one step closer, one game at a time.”
“Now it comes down to one game at a time,” Kahn said. “We’ve just got to focus on [Saturday] at this point. I hope our guys do enjoy this but get back to work on Sunday and prepare for next week.”
Rafferty led the team with 19 points and added 10 rebounds for a double-double. He was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I was so surprised. I’m speechless,” Rafferty said. “But it’s four in a row for the team, three in a row for me and I couldn’t be happier.”
Junior Jon Miller, who missed the semi-final with a foot injury, returned with 17 points – a new career high – and added three rebounds.
“It’s time for the playoffs,” Miller said. “It’s time to separate the men from the boys. It’s time to go.”
Five players finished in double figures for the Cavs, including Knowles and Williams. Williams, one of Kahn’s first recruits, was a member of all four CSAC championship teams. Kahn’s first recruiting class featured Williams and fellow senior Goran Dulac.
“That’s a special thing,” Kahn said. “It’s taken me 15 years of coaching to get four in a row like this. I hope they really appreciate it and I think they will.”
Now the Cavs have earned the berth in the NCAA Tournament with a chance to return to the national championship. The team still plans to take things one game at a time.
“Our goal is to get back to the Final Four,” Rafferty said. “We started the season a little slow so we decided to slow it down. We knew we had to win the CSAC before we could step into the Final Four. We got down to work. We came back from winter break, started working harder, got a nice little run coming into the playoffs and here we are.”
“I don’t even know if we know our full potential yet,” Kahn said. “I think we’re still finding ourselves. Last year, I think we knew start to finish how good we were. This year, I don’t think we did, so it makes it a little more special that way.”
“This was the first goal,” Walton-Moss said. “Win the CSAC and you’re automatically in and now we’re in. We can’t ask for anything else.”