FITCHBURG — Rarely does a game in late July have the feel of a district final, but that was the case on Monday evening. The upstart Groton-Dunstable boys basketball team, trying to find an identity after losing the majority of their district semifinalist team from last year, the Crusaders have become a run and gun, high-octane team throughout the summer and gave Division II favorite St. Bernard’s all it could handle before falling 57-55, or so it seemed.

The game, one of the best of the summer at Monty Tech, actually should have been extended. A missed basket in the first half deprived Groton-Dunstable of two points it should have had, leading to what eventually was a two-point loss. Most importantly out of this game, the Crusaders learned that they can compete with the elite of Division II heading into next season.

“The kids have really been playing great all summer long and are working together as a unit,” said Groton-Dunstable coach Pat Romich. “Tonight, we really played a strong first 35 minutes, but we wore down as the night went on. We only had eight and we lost our legs on our shots late, but the effort was outstanding.”

After falling behind 8-2 two minutes into the game, the Crusaders reeled off a 13-2 run to take their first lead of the night. Matt Conlin caught fire from behind the arc, knocking down a trio of three-pointers, including a pull-up trey on a fast break to give Groton-Dunstable its first lead of the night. Corey Romich added three assists, including a great look on a Phil Dubay lay-in that made it a 15-10 game.

The lead grew to six on a Charles Hill lay-up off a perfect feed from Dubay that pushed the lead to 21-15 before the Bernardians came up with eight of the next 10 points to draw even. John Crawley led the charge with five points, including a long three-pointer that tied the game at 23-23 with five minutes to play in the first half.

With the game knotted at 26-26, the Crusaders closed out the opening half with an 8-3 run to establish a five-point lead. Romich knocked down a 25-foot three-pointer and Conlin connected on a pair of free throws and a trey of his own off a Coleman Hill dish to make it 34-29 heading into the intermission.

At the start of the second half, St. Bernard’s made a couple of runs to get close, but Groton-Dunstable had the answer each time. When the lead dipped to three at 36-33, Conlin and Romich connected on mid-range jumper to push the lead back to seven. The lead was cut to two at 40-38, but Mike Allen came up with a steal and lay-up and Romich connected on a pair of treys as part of an 8-2 run to give the Crusaders a 48-40 edge.

Once again, the Bernardians got within two at 48-46, only to see Groton-Dunstable push the edge back to seven at 53-46. Finally, St. Bernard’s put together a run that saw no answer. Andrew Baron hit a pair of jumpers while Crawley knocked down a pull-up 14-footer that tied the game at 55-55.

The teams traded buckets as Romich made a great inside feed to Charles Hill for a lay-in while Mike McGuirk hit a driving lay-up to tie the game once again. However, with the missing two points from the score, the Bernardians were credited with a two-point lead in the final seconds. The Crusaders tried to draw up a play for a last-second three to win it, but a desperation heave fell short as St. Bernard’s claimed the win.

Conlin paced Groton-Dunstable with 19 points, four rebounds and seven assists. Romich finished with 15 points, seven boards and five assists. Charles Hill added eight points and eight rebounds while Dubay chipped in six points and 11 boards.