Throughout its Northwest Holiday Tournament semifinal against Kellis, Northwest Christian's inside game was severely compromised by the presence of Kenny Martin.
The 6-9 junior blocked five shots and caused the Crusaders to look for jump shots while he was in. But the night's biggest play was a Matin block that came a split second late.
With the game tied at 43 and 1:42 remaining, senior forward Phil Ogan slipped into an open space along the baseline, caught a pass and put up a layup as Martin recovered. Martin blocked the shot after it hit the backboard, leading to a goaltending call and giving the Crusaders a lead they would not relinquish.
"It was great seeing our role players step up in a big way tonight," Northwest Christian coach Tyler Collins said. "(Senior guard Kevin) Gage really stepped up big when we were down in the first half. (Ogan's) shot was a big turning point for us."
From there, Northwest Christian (12-1) made seven of eight free throws and shut down Kellis (8-2) to win 52-45 and reach the tournament title game.
It was a night of redemption for a team that returned most of the players who figured in a memorable semifinal loss in the 2009 tournament. The Crusaders appeared on their way to the final last year, only to lose to Valley Vista 50-49 on a 25-foot buzzer beater.
"That was absolutely on our mind because three of the last four years we've been in this game and lost," Collins said. "To get over that hump, that was huge for us. It was huge for us because now we feel like a team that competes with some of our good teams from the past."
Star senior point guard led Northwest Christian's charge, scoring seven of the team's first nine points. Kellis quickly switched the focus of its defense on him and his brother, Hayden, leaving the Crusaders' role players to step up. Dakota Anderson finished with 11 points and five assists.
It took a while. Kellis grabbed a 21-13 lead early in the second quarter before senior Gage and junior Casey Jahn drilled back-to-back three point shots.
Gage scored six more points in the second quarter and Ogan added two jumpers. Both were able to get several open looks out of the range of Martin
"We have Dakota at point guard, and everybody knows about him. To win this tournament we had to have a big team effort," Gage said. "We step up and score around Dakota, it's a whole different ball game because he doesn't have to do everything."
Northwest Christian's offensive precision resulted in a 33-29 halftime lead, but Kellis put the brakes on in the third quarter. Gage scored the final four of his game-high 13, but the Crusaders could only muster a pair of free throws by Jahn in the rest of the quarter.
A sticky zone defense kept the 2A school in it. Northwest Christian packed it in against Martin and junior power forward Jarvis Lewis, content to let the Cougars shoot from outside.
This strategy worked, as no Kellis player got into double figures. Junior guard Wayman Payne led the Cougars with nine points and added seven rebounds.
Neither team could score in the fourth. Hayden Anderson's basket to tie the game at 43 came four minutes before the goaltending call.
"Our big men down low were phenomenal," Gage said. "We've got a bunch of scrappers on defense."
Northwest Christian will play Tolleson in the tournament championship game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Greenway gym, 3930 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix.