With all five starters and 11 players overall gone from last season’s Lancaster-Lebanon League boys basketball championship team, many probably thought a return trip to this year’s title game was not in the cards for Lancaster Catholic.
Down 10 to Ephrata on Wednesday night, some might have had the same feeling.
But the Crusaders fought back and earned that coveted return trip when David Kamwanga hit a pair of free throws with 0.1 seconds left, giving Catholic a 44-42 win over the Mounts in an L-L semifinal at Penn Manor.
“It’s awesome, it really is,” Crusaders coach Joe Klazas said. “There’s probably not a lot of people who thought we could get there, especially early on. As we progressed throughout the year, I think we turned some heads.”
Catholic (22-2) goes for the L-L title repeat Friday night at Manheim Township against Lampeter-Strasburg — a 47-45 winner over Hempfield in Wednesday’s other semi.
After sitting out the final 8:34 of the first half with two fouls, Kamwanga scored eight of his game-high 10 points in the second half, including six in the final quarter.
The two biggest came just before time expired, when the Crusaders inbounded in front of their bench with four seconds left and worked it down low to the 6-foot-6 sophomore.
“I love the fact that we executed exactly what we drew up,” Klazas said. “That was something we drew up on the fly.”
Ephrata (18-6) was whistled for a foul, sending Kamwanga to the line looking to break a 42-42 tie.
After some encouraging words from his teammates, the 75 percent free-throw shooter toed the line and sank both shots.
“That was the first time that happened to me,” Kamwanga said. “I was kind of nervous, but my teammates talked to me and I didn’t let them down.”
Ephrata coach Jon Treese was disappointed the back-and-forth game ended like the way it did.
“We can’t focus on one call,” Treese said. “It was a great basketball game.
“We got looks we wanted, we played our game and we stuck to our game plan, had every opportunity,” Treese added. “It certainly ended a way I didn’t expect.”
The Mounts, who hit 14 treys in Monday’s quarterfinal win over Cedar Crest, had the hot hand again early on. They knocked down five in the first 12 minutes and had a 19-9 lead in the second quarter.
But when Catholic’s Johnny Besecker banked home a 3-pointer in the final second of the first half, the two teams went to the break tied at 21-21.
“They made a lot of shots early,” Klazas said. “It was important for us to keep our confidence. It was just a classic back-and-forth game.”
Catholic built a 32-27 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter. That lead was down to four points in the fourth quarter before Ephrata’s Brad DaBella scored six straight points, putting the Mounts ahead 40-38 with 5:02 left.
The Crusaders then scored six of the game’s final eight points to secure their berth in the finale.
“These kids have really bought into things we’ve taught,” Klazas said. “They’re also benefiting from being around that last year. There’s no doubt that all that stuff certainly paid off for the younger guys.”