LANARK – The Eastland Cougars clinched back-to-back trips to the Elite Eight on Friday night, as they beat the Indian Creek Timberwolves 51-42 in the River Ridge Sectional Championship.
Eastland will play against either Mooseheart of Chicagoland Jewish in the DeKalb Supersectional at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Mooseheart and Jewish play on Saturday in the championship of the Serena Sectional.
The Cougars (26-4) started off hot, thanks in part to senior Skylar Paulson, who was guarded by the 6-foot, 10-inch Garrison Govig from Indian Creek.
The more agile Paulson took advantage, as he quickly amassed 10 points in the first quarter. He also pulled in his 10th rebound at the 3:12 mark of the second quarter.
"Watching from the bench the other night killed me," said Paulson, who got into foul trouble in the semifinal game Wednesday. "I came out tonight and tried to be aggressive on offense and tried to get every rebound, because I knew that [Govig] was going to get a lot of rebounds. I just tried to get every single rebound I could, and we did a nice job screening out."
Paulson finished with 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
Sophomore Blake Janssen drew the task of defending and screening out Govig, who was held to seven points and six rebounds.
"I was just trying to not let him get it," said Janssen. "We did a lot in practice to make sure he wouldn't get that lob. We did a really good job at it. He's tough, big, and hard to screen out.
Eastland cruised to a 32-17 lead at the break, and seemed to have complete control.
The second half was a different story.
Right out of the gate, Taylor Johnson and Nick Baldwin hit back-to-back 3s for Indian Creek. The Timberwolves rattled off a 16-4 run to start the half.
"First half, we weren't getting clean rebounds," Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz said. "What was happening was they were either getting offensive rebounds, or they were tipping it to throw off our transition game. At half, we talked about getting that clean rebound, let's get on offense and let's go."
The run was ended in the third quarter by Eastland's go-to scorer Dalton Shaner. He got loose to knock down a 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter, and followed it up with a crowd-pleasing athletic layup around Govig.
"They just didn't let me in my comfortable spots," said Shaner, who poured in a 25 points. "I like to have my dribble point up to the 3-pointer. They cut it off by picking us up defensively really early, as soon as we passed half court. They put constant pressure on us. That was the hardest we've ever had to work on offense to even get space."
While this gave the Cougars some breathing room at 41-33 early in the fourth, the game was still far from over. After a Janssen layup extended the Cougar lead, the Timberwolves made another move, and got it down to a five-point deficit with 3:20 left.
Janssen then received a pass in the middle of the lane and faced the basket, but Govig stood in his way. After hesitating a moment, Janssen knocked down the short jumper.
"I wasn't thinking about making those shots," Janssen said. "I just saw him sagging off and took the opportunity. I knew I could knock it down."
"Just like the drills, he caught it heel-toe and knocked it down," Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said. "I couldn't be prouder of him, and all of them. They're a great group of men."
The final dagger came when four players from the Timberwolves focused all their energy on Shaner in a full-court press. He threw a pass from the backcourt right into the welcoming arms of senior Devin Hartman, who finished the play to give the Cougars a nine-point cushion with 20 seconds left.
"That was a relief right there," Shaner said. "I got past one guy and saw one coming from my left, and two coming straight at me, but I saw Devin wide open. We had a pretty good lead, but even to get that open bucket and then to look up at the clock and see how much time was left was a sigh of relief. We knew at that point it was over."
"It took a team effort," Dunlap said. "You don't do things like this or be successful without a team effort. Whether it's all 15 guys I have in there, the four coaches, or the community you live in. If you don't have a team effort, none of this happens. It takes all of us."
Star of the game: Skylar Paulson, Eastland, 14 points, 13 rebounds
Key performers: Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 25 points, 5 rebounds. David Boehne, Indian Creek, 9 points
Up next: 1A DeKalb Supersectional, Eastland vs. Mooseheart or Chicago Jewish, 6 p.m. Tuesday