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Eastland set to tangle with supersized Mooseheart

At 6-foot, 2-inches, Eastland's Skylar Paulson is one of the primary post players for the Cougars. He'll be giving up 6 inches or more to three of Mooseheart's starters tonight at the 1A DeKalb Supersectional.
At 6-foot, 2-inches, Eastland's Skylar Paulson is one of the primary post players for the Cougars. He'll be giving up 6 inches or more to three of Mooseheart's starters tonight at the 1A DeKalb Supersectional.

The Chicago Bulls start a front line of 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah, 6-9 Carlos Boozer and 6-9 Mike Dunleavy.

That's a combined height of 20 feet, 5 inches – one inch shorter than the big men suited up for the Mooseheart High School boys basketball team. The Red Ramblers feature a trio of Sudanese players in 7-1 Akim Nyang, 6-10 Makur Puou and 6-7 Mangisto Deng, who won the school's first-ever sectional title this past Friday.

That is part of the challenge that lies ahead for Eastland tonight at the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional. Game time is 6 p.m. in the Convocation Center, and the winner advances to the state tournament on Friday in Peoria.

Eastland (26-4) won its fourth sectional since 2008 this past Friday, after a 51-42 decision against Indian Creek at River Ridge High School. On Saturday, Cougars' coaches and players headed to Serena to watch that sectional final between Mooseheart and Chicagoland Jewish.

Mooseheart (26-5) won a 50-35 decision, under the watchful eye of the Eastland contingent.

"You were very shocked right away by their size," senior guard Dalton Shaner said, "because you just don't see that size, regardless of what class it is. Their size, and how lengthy they are, that's what really stands out."

"After they get a shot, they usually get a couple of offensive rebounds," senior forward Skylar Paulson said. "That's one thing we'll have to focus on."

Eastland coach Tony Dunlap has never been one to shy away from tough competition, as he has annually put his team in elite shootouts across the state. This game, however, is something totally different.

"I don't know that I've seen a longer, more athletic group of kids on the floor on the same team in my life in 30 years of coaching," Dunlap said. "But, we're here, and I love the challenge. I just want to go after them, play ball and see what happens."

Nyang, Puou and Deng came to Mooseheart from war-torn Sudan in May of 2011. They were ruled ineligible to play basketball four games into the 2012-13 season by the IHSA, but the school sued, and the players regained their eligibility.

The Red Ramblers won a regional title a year ago, but lost to Chicagoland Jewish at the sectional. This season, Mooseheart won the rematch between the teams at the Serena Sectional final.

Puou led the way with 27 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots.

"We're going to have to play our A game to be successful," Dunlap said, "but we have to do what we do. We can't alter things because of them. We'll game plan for them like we do everybody."

That means Mooseheart will get a heavy dose of the 6-foot Shaner, a returning first-team all-stater who led the Cougars to last year's state tournament. He's been on a postseason tear, highlighted by a game-deciding 3 he hit against Aquin in the Forreston Regional final, and the 39 points he put up against Dakota in the sectional semifinal.

Shaner has no plans to simply chuck up long-distance shots against towering Mooseheart.

"If there's a lane, we're still going to drive the lane and take the shots that they give us," Shaner said.

Eastland's main inside muscle comes from Paulson, though he's listed at just 6-2. He's used to scrapping against taller foes, however, and he realizes he needs to stay on the floor as much as possible.

"I'm going to try to be as physical as I can, without getting fouls," Paulson said. "Everybody is going to have to screen out. That's a main point of emphasis with them."

The Cougars have endured a roller coaster of a season, struggling in mid-season due to what Dunlap termed "selfish" play. Those issues have been dealt with and corrected, however, and Dunlap was pleased with how his team handled itself in a loaded Forreston Regional, as well as the River Ridge Sectional.

Eastland is now within a game of reaching its third state tournament in the past 5 years.

"There's no great secret to basketball," Dunlap said. "You've got to be able to handle it, and play both ends of the floor in every situation. We've just drilled them the last 3 days on how we want to handle it, and whatever happens, happens."

1A DeKalb Supersectional

Who: Eastland vs. Mooseheart

When: 6 p.m. tonight

Where: Convocation Center

FYI: Eastland is seeking its third trip to state in the past 5 years. The Cougars finished fourth in 2013 and 2010. ... Mooseheart won its first-ever regional title in 2013 and first-ever sectional title in 2014. ... The Red Ramblers have had success in football, qualifying for the playoffs five times in the last eight seasons.

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