PEORIA – His name is Skylar Paulson. Huge fan of “Fight Club” over here, hence the reference. I’m also very partial to red-headed grinders who spend a good portion of their life in my home state of Wisconsin.
Hence, while his name is Skylar Paulson, I see UW floor-burner Mike Bruesewitz when I watch the Eastland junior ply his craft on the hardwood.
“I like him,” said Paulson, whose family lived in Monticello, Wis., before moving to Illinois about 10 years ago. “My stepdad compares me to him and says I’m a lot like him. If I said I was like another player, it’d be him: strong, undersized and working hard guarding the big man. Anyone, really.”
I saw a lot of the Brueser in Paulson as he hit the hardwood several times during Eastland’s 51-50 state semifinal loss to Madison (not that Madison, Badger fans) on Friday afternoon at the Civic Center.
On one of Paulson’s last hardwood belly flops, he slipped a pass to Ty Hartman before slamming against the deck, setting up a layup that made it 46-44 Cougars with 1:52 to play.
I watched and couldn’t help but nod with approval as Paulson set one of his rock-solid screens, freeing up Dalton Shaner for a jumper that gave the Cougars a 48-46 lead with 61 seconds left.
Unfortunately, I then saw Paulson head to the bench when he committed his fifth foul in a 50-49 game and would be helplessly confined to a folding chair for the final 8.3 seconds. The salt in the wound was watching Deontay Starnes turn the foul into the game-winning free throws.
For all of my admiration for the dirty work Paulson does – some of it represented in the box score, a lot of it non-quantifiable – you’d wonder why I’d go and make him cry after the game. Well, it’s my job, is the short answer.
After lobbing him a couple of softballs, I had to come in high and tight with a cutter that I knew would cut deep. The question? How hard was it to watch the last couple of possessions?
The eyes welled up and – as he always does – Paulson did his very best. But all he could push out was, “I’m sorry.”
It’s OK, big guy. It’s only the biggest game of your life thus far. If you didn’t cry a little, we’d need to check your pulse.
I’ve done a pretty thorough job sharing Dalton Shaner’s stories over the past couple of weeks. For those brandishing their pitchforks, waiting to unleash a “Shaner isn’t the whole team” tirade, I apologize. He’s been the Cougars’ most dynamic player, and also happened to have a lot of intriguing storylines buzzing around him.
But despite the junior’s first step and sleight of hand, he had his pocket picked three times and his shot blocked three more. The Trojans’ athleticism was unlike any the Cougars had seen, and it made that lightning-quick step look a little less awe-inspiring.
As Shaner languished early on, someone needed to step up, and Paulson was happy to do so. He’d finish with nine points, seven rebounds and four assists. His offensive rebound with 58.3 second left in the first was the Cougars’ first. He hit one of two free throws and put his team on his back early in the second.
“They were crashing the boards hard, so when we got shots, I saw openings to run to the hoop and put it back,” said Paulson, who scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in the first 3 minutes of the second period alone.
Forgive me for being a little fatalist here, but I’m not traveling to Peoria on Saturday. So I want to look a little further down the timeline.
I predict, thanks to guys like Paulson, we’ll be chasing another bus full of Cougars back to Peoria.
When I asked him what it takes to get on the floor with no regard for personal safety, Paulson gave me an answer that doubles as the reason those tears will quickly turn to pride in what the Cougars accomplished this season.
“Pain is temporary,” he said.