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ATLANTA (GA) – St. Pius was 16 minutes away from winning its 2019 Christmas Classic tournament but Canisius (NY) and Dewayne Vass decided they would be lifting the championship trophy instead.
Led by a stifling defense and Vass, who scored 19 of his 22 points in the second half and was also named the tournament MVP, the Crusaders overcame an 11-point halftime deficit en route to a 69-56 victory on November 30.
“We let them dictate to us that entire first half,” Canisius coach Kyle Husband said. “That is exactly what we didn’t want. We didn’t play with any pace. We let the [full-court] press effect us and we didn’t guard–that is our backbone. We got to guard. We got to play D. They scored  in the first half and  in the second. We were more focused, had more energy and played a really good 16 minutes.”
After trading baskets with the Golden Lions to start the third quarter, Canisius remained within single digits the rest of the frame and not only chipped away from its margin but closed the frame with a 17-6 surge for a 49-48 score.
During the shift in momentum, Vass, who stands at 6-2 and fits the build of a football player but handles the ball at an elite level, had nine points (all layups including a three-point play) during that span.
Vass’ third basket of the quarter led to a reaction in the gym that even the home fans had to appreciate. The senior used one spin move to lose one defender and another in the lane to evade the defense and finish at the rim.
“It was just natural,” said Vass, who also had six assists and six rebounds. “I seen the defender and the move came to me so I did it and it worked.”
“I think hurts him from a recruiting standpoint because people look at him and think he is a football player but that is one of the best basketball players if not the best basketball player we’ve ever had,” said Husband of Vass. “No one can stay in front of him. He’s strong, quick and that handle is second to none. That thing is tight. Every time he plays, he does something where even I look at the bench like ‘whoa.’ You can’t teach that. You can’t coach that. He just has that. He is special.”
In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Vass converted one of his four steals into a fast-break layin and a 50-49 edge for the Crusaders, who led for the first time since the opening period.
And Canisius didn’t let up there since Vass’ bucket ignited a 15-1 run which virtually continued the Crusaders perfect start to the season. Canisius outscored St. Pius 42-18 in the second half and didn’t allow a field goal during the first six minutes of the final period.
“In the first half, our defense was sluggish,” Vass said. “In the second half, we limited the turnovers and played better D and got a lot of easy stops and easy buckets.”
Max Dowling scored 12 points for the Crusaders and Shane Cercone added 10.
“We were runners up two years ago and played in the consolation game last year,” Husband said. “These guys were excited to come down here and they played with a little more focus. A little more determination. They were here for basketball. They were not just on vacation and that was fun to see.”
The first quarter was a back-and-forth battle with multiple lead changes until the Golden Lions distanced themselves from the visitors in the second quarter. Brookes Kahlert (14 points, five assists) nailed a 3-pointer to cap a 9-0 run and put St. Pius ahead 25-15. The Golden Lions led by as many as 13 and entered halftime with a 38-27 advantage.
Callum Petersen scored 17 points, including five 3-pointers, as a result of the team’s good ball movement.