DEKALB – Newark got a taste of Eastland-style defense on Wednesday night.
In the end, the Norsemen were left with a bitter taste in their mouths after dropping a 51-41 decision to the Cougars at the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional in the NIU Convocation Center.
Next up for Eastland (30-3) is a berth in the state tournament that begins Friday in Peoria. The Cougars will take on Madison at 12:15 p.m.
"I'm as excited now as when I was 6 years old, winning my first basketball game as a player with my teammates," said Eastland coach Tony Dunlap, who is taking the Cougars to state for the second time in 6 years. "I couldn't be more thrilled for the community, the kids and everything that Eastland stands for."
The Cougars did it as they have entire postseason – with suffocating defense. This time, their main targets were Newark's inside tandem of 6-foot-4 senior forward Brett Anderson, a 4-year starter and likely all-stater who averages nearly 22 points per game, and freshman forward Jack Clausel, a 6-5 bruiser who averages 13 per game.
Anderson finished with 15 points, but misfired on 15 of the 20 shots he chucked up. He was under constant pressure from Eastland defensive stopper Skylar Paulson, and appeared to grow more frustrated as the game went on.
"They definitely played very hands-on," Anderson said, "but I'm questioning whether it's defense or it's a foul. It seemed like the refs were telling us to get our hands off on one end, and they just let them do whatever they wanted on the other end. If that's how they play defense, and they didn't call it, that's what they're going to do. Hats off to them. They did what they had to do."
Paulson, who shut down Erie's Jacob Johnston and Aquin's Nolan Brannick in the Eastland Sectional, didn't consider his defensive job on Anderson anything too special.
"My defensive effort wasn't that great tonight," he said, "but we got it done."
Clausel, meanwhile, was mostly bottled up by Eastland forward Ty Hartman. The two regularly waged combat down low, and Clausel managed just four field-goal attempts and had eight points. The point total for Anderson and Clausel (23) was only slightly more than that of Hartman (9) and Paulson (7), an exchange the Cougars gladly would take.
"We knew their bigs got the majority of their points," Hartman said, "so that really helped us when we started slowing them down."
With post play basically a stalemate, Eastland had to rely on its guards, and they have an advantage there in most games thanks largely to the play of Dalton Shaner. The 6-1 junior didn't have too many opportunities to take the ball to the basket against Newark's zone defense, but instead relied on 3-pointers (3-for-6 from long distance) and a mid-range game to pour in 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
"We had to execute against their zone well," Shaner said. "We knew they were going to run the zone, and we needed to take smart, open shots. I thought we did that."
Backcourt mate Austin Hansen added seven points, and the duo caught the attention of Newark coach Rick Tollefson.
"They're tough, tough players," Tollefson said. "Those two guards are about as good as we've seen as a guard tandem."
Newark (21-12) fought an uphill battle for the bulk of the game, but a late flurry by Anderson kept things interesting. He hit back-to-back threes to get his team to within 42-39 with 2:52 remaining, and a basket at the 1:35 mark made the score 44-41.
Eastland responded with with a basket from Paulson, off a nice feed from Shaner, with just over 1 minute to play, and the Cougars hit 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to salt away the win.
A potential game-tying 3-pointer from Anderson was deflected by Paulson with 2 minutes to play. It drew howls of protest from Newark fans, but Paulson insisted it was a clean play.
"I had my hand straight up, and he shot it into my hand," Paulson said. "He thought it was a foul, but I just had my hand straight up. I didn't think it was a foul."
Anderson saw it differently.
"There were a couple of threes at the end of the game there was definitely a lot of contact on," Anderson said. "The refs didn't really call anything the whole game, so I guess we couldn't really say we were expecting to make a call, especially on such a critical play like that. They were going to let the players determine who won the game, and that's what they did."
There were just 21 fouls called, with 12 of those going against Newark. The slow whistle was likely welcomed by the more physical Eastland team, as was a 26-15 rebounding advantage.
"We didn't allow a lot of second shots, and that was the big thing," Dunlap said. "Our defense is pretty gritty, and that's why we are where we are right now."
Eastland tickets on sale today
Eastland fans wanting to attend the boys state basketball tournament in Peoria may buy their tickets today at the high school.
From 7:45 to 8:30 a.m., players and parents can purchase tickets. Limit is six tickets until all players have tickets, then they may purchase an umlimited amount.
Cheerleaders and their parents are next from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m., followed by staff, school board members and students from 8:45 to 10 a.m., and then the general public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Tickets will also be available at the Peoria Civic Center on game day. Lower bowl cost is $10.50 for one session or $21 for two sessions. Upper bowl cost is $8.50 or $17.
Eastland plays Madison at 12:15 p.m. on Friday. The Cougars will then go for either first or third place on Saturday.