When Game 2 of Saturday afternoon's PIAA doubleheader at Freedom High began, it was as though the early game had used up all the excitement and left none behind.
In the opener, Lincoln dramatically defeated District 2's Hazleton in overtime in the Class 6A semifinals, to uproarious cheers from its small-but-boisterous group of supporters.
Then, in the Class 2A semifinal, it didn't take long for Constitution to take control against Holy Cross in a game that seemed destined to become a snoozer by halftime.
But, after Holy Cross, the District 2 champ, added a pinch of poise, a dollop of desire, and a heaping of heart, the crowd was energized, and Constitution nearly coughed up a 20-point lead.
The Generals, however, prevailed, 69-64, and advanced to play District 7's Our Lady of Sacred Heart at 2 p.m., Tuesday. Sacred Heart advanced by defeating defending champion Sewickley Academy, 70-68, in overtime.
Constitution, which once led, 36-12, in the first half, was led by junior forward Jabari Merritt's 20 points, five rebounds, and and three blocked shots.
The Cougars were led by senior guard Pat Galvin, who relentlessly drove right en route to 33 points on 11-of-17 shooting. He also shot 11 of 14 at the foul line and earned the respect of the Generals.
"I think we had built enough cushion," coach Rob Moore said. "I think, at the end of the day, that's really what it came down to. They ran short on time, and we had a plus-margin in the cushion that we built early. Other than that, obviously, they had us on the ropes late."
Moore, who said his team has faced Holy Cross in four of the last five years (it lost in 2013), wasn't surprised by the Cougars' resolve and warned his team at halftime not to take them lightly.
"What it really boils down to is that we've been preparing for this all season, and it's always been the expectation," Moore said. "Hats off to coach [Al] Callejas. He had his guys prepared. A lot of teams would have come out at halftime and said, 'These guys are bigger than us, stronger than us, quicker than us, and they're hitting shots. Let's just pack it up and go home.' Not them. They came to play. I have a lot of respect for them."
After shooting 7 of 25 overall and 1 of 10 from the three-point line in the first half, and trailing, 36-15, at the break, the Cougars won the third quarter, 25-10.
Galvin "was just having a great day, and we weren't able to stop him in the second half," Moore said, "and had we not been up 20-plus points early, we would have been going home."
Galvin had six points at the half.
"In the first half, it was like I didn't even notice him," Merritt, who transferred from Roman Catholic, said of Galvin. "In the second half, from the jump he just came out and was driving past our guards. I was trying to block it, and I wasn't getting it. He was throwing it high off the glass. He was a good guard. He stayed poised."
Constitution (20-11) didn't. The Generals had just five turnovers at the half but finished with 15. The Cougars (23-7) ended with 18.
Constitution also missed 17 of 29 foul shots, including several late in the game, as the Cougars charged.
Defense, as it has all season, earned Constitution control of the game.
"I already know we're going to score," Merritt said. "We're an offensive team. We can put up 70 points on a bad night, so defense is the key to winning our games. When we're having a good defensive night, we're good."
Keshaun Hammonds added 14 points for the Generals, while Damon Wall added 10 before fouling out late.
Constitution 20 | 16 | 10 | 23 — 69
Holy Cross 4 | 11 | 25 | 24 — 64
C: Jabari Merritt 20, Keshaun Hammonds 14, Damon Wall 10, Tyree Mitchell 9, Jahmir Marable-Williams 9, LeeRon Wills-Worthy 6, Abdul Riggins 1.