POLO – Skylar Paulson had a tough closing act to follow in the last minute of Eastland's 56-39 regional championship victory over Polo on Friday night.
His fellow junior, Dalton Shaner, hit two 3s at the end of the first half that capped an 8-0 burst that put the Cougars up 30-19 at the break.
To hit the latter, the 6-1 guard created space with a filthy, left-to-right crossover that turned Brad Cavanaugh inside-out along the right side of the perimeter. He held his right hand up for a moment after drawing nothing but net, then turned and pounded his chest as he stamped toward halfcourt and the buzzer sounded.
"Coach trusts me to get one shot and get a good look," Shaner said. "That's all I was trying to do, and it went in that time.
"You definitely have to have confidence in yourself coming into a playoff game like this."
"We were all pretty pumped after he did that," Paulson said. "We were going crazy, but we knew we had to come back out in the second half and keep it going."
Eastland (27-3) built a 38-21 lead with a 5-0 spurt early in the third. Paulson beat the transition-happy Marcos (21-8) at their own game by snagging a rebound and getting it up the floor to Shaner. He connected from 17 feet before busting out a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump.
There would be more flexing.
Ty Hartman took a bounce pass from a driving Paulson and finished despite contact by Zach Quaco. After a flex and a holler of his own, he hit the freebie for a dagger-like three-point play that put Eastland up 49-36 with 1:35 to play.
Hartman hit two free throws, his ninth and 10th points after scoring just one in the first half.
Then it was time for Paulson to quiet the naysayers.
With all five Marcos pressing, the 6-3 forward peeled off. Austin Hansen hit him with a baseball pass at midcourt, and he was cleared for liftoff.
"At halfcourt, I saw I was wide open," Paulson said. "I figured, 'Yeah I'm gonna throw this down,' because all the guys have been giving me crap that I can throw down so easy in practice and I hadn't yet in a game. I wasn't gonna mess up the opportunity."
For the first time this season, Paulson attemped a dunk, and it was a thundrous two-handed flush, complete with – you guessed it – a celebratory flex.
"It definitely got the whole crowd and the team motivated," Shaner said. "I was surprised he tried it in a game."
"That was exciting," Hartman said. "He's been doing it in practice all year long."
The Cougars' three leading scorers, Shaner (16), Paulson (13) and Hartman (11), doled out three assists apiece, and Paulson notched eight rebounds and two blocks.
But Polo didn't let Eastland run away and hide. They trailed just 22-18 after Quaco followed a transition layup miss by Brian Cavanaugh. The trailing Quaco soared in and banked home a shot high off glass despite being sandwiched by two Cougars. He hit the free throw, and AJ Dollmeyer hit one of two to make it 22-19.
That's as close as the Marcos would get.
"We've got a young team, but we were looking for a regional championship," said Quaco, who led Polo with 11 points. "It would've been nice, but we're going to come out even stronger next year."
Dollmeyer is quite the centerpiece for Polo's future. But Friday night, the Marcos held the 6-7 junior forward to seven points on 3-for-9 shooting. They put butts on him every opportunity to limit him to eight rebounds.
They frustrated the heck out of him.
"They have strong, athletic kids who could get up and challenge him and make life hard for him," Polo coach Mark Messer said. "Knowing it was going to be a little bit rougher than normal games, I think the moment kind of got to him for the first time all year. He showed some emotion that he hasn't shown all year."
Star of the game: Skylar Paulson, Eastland, 13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
Key performer: Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists; Ty Hartman, Eastland, 11 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists; Zach Quaco, Polo, 11 points, 6 rebounds; Brian Cavanaugh, Polo, 10 points, 5 rebounds
Up next: Eastland sectional semifinal – Erie vs. Eastland, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
The game hadn't tipped off yet, and Christopher Heimerman was ready to hand out grades on the eye test.