The No. 3 Crusaders clubbed the Braves 81-59 and are hanging with top programs O'Dea and Rainier Beach.

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There’s an emerging boys basketball program in the Metro League that all the eyes are starting to focus on this season.

So far, Eastside Catholic is proving it belongs in the discussion with Metro’s elite teams such as Rainier Beach and O’Dea.

Despite foul trouble from backcourt mates Shane Nowell and Syon Blackmon, third-ranked Eastside Catholic flexed its depth and stepped on the gas in the second quarter en route to an 81-59 victory over host Bishop Blanchet in a Metro League game Friday night.

The hunger from reaching last season’s Class 3A state semifinals is lingering, and that’s a good thing for the Crusaders (5-0, 3-0 Metro).

“Last year definitely opened my eyes, and we definitely have a great team,” said Nowell, who got motivated to the chants of “Jaylen’s better,” referring to his brother who is a standout for the UW Huskies, from the Blanchet students and turned his game up with eight points in the third quarter. “I feel like we’re better than last year (sixth place at state). I feel this year we have some great pieces, and we have a great coaching staff. We all work together, and it’s going to help us achieve that goal.

“We’re definitely all unselfish, I feel. We all get each other involved. We play defense as a team. We’ve matured from last year. I want to be playing with my team on March 2, holding up that gold ball at 9:30 p.m.”

Nowell, who picked up his third foul in the third quarter and fourth 19 seconds into the fourth, managed to put up 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists despite what Crusaders coach Brent Merritt said was an off night defensively for his 6-foot-6 sophomore star.

“He definitely has high expectations for me, and it’s not just about my scoring,” Nowell said. “It’s definitely about my defense. I have to pick up on that, especially as one of the leaders on this team.”

The Crusaders left some room for improvement, getting off to a slow start and having some defensive lapses.

Blackmon, a 6-foot junior, tallied 16 points, four assists and four steals despite shuttling in and out of the lineup like Nowell with foul issues.

Bishop Blanchet (3-1, 2-1) got 15 points from senior Lester Sauvage and 14 from senior Cade Prinzivalli, who kept the Braves close and were on top 14-12 with a layin with 3:17 left in the first quarter.

Eastside Catholic went on an 18-5 run to open a 30-19 lead with 4:40 to go before halftime. Blackmon was sizzling early from the floor, scoring 12 points in the opening 10 minutes, 2 seconds.

EC has won 10 consecutive games against the Braves. The last Blanchet win was a 59-56 decision on Dec. 1, 2010.

Eastside Catholic sophomore JT Tuimoloau added 15 points and 12 rebounds. Tuimoloau scored 11 points in the second half.

“Execution and intensity for us is key,” Merritt said. “Since we got the emifinals last year, sometimes in my mind I feel like (the team) feels like you just get there easily and you’re just going back. I think we were kind of looking ahead to Franklin (Saturday) a little bit.

“We weren’t respecting these guys until they put their foots in our butts and made us step up our game. We just have to make sure we take care of it every night.”

The Crusaders also made their case as a top team in Metro with Tuesday’s 90-59 romp over fifth-ranked Ingraham, a team many thought could evolve into one of the best teams in Metro this season.