The Wauwatosa West Trojans pushed New Berlin Eisenhower to the brink on Friday night, but in the end, the Lions closed out the Woodland Conference game as they have so many others to leave with a 62-53 win Feb. 12.
The Trojans (10-9 overall, 6-8 in conference) came out swinging in the first half and hit a copious number of 3-pointers to rival Eisenhower's renowned 3-point shooting. Se'veon James and Alou Dillon both hit two 3s for the Trojans in the first half, but it was the Trojans' defense that made the difference.
West played a zone defense that frustrated the Lions' attempts to work the ball inside. Nevertheless, despite a successful defense for most of the first half, West gave up eight unanswered points to end the half, and the Trojans led 28-27 at halftime.
'Last time we played them, we started in a zone,' said Trojan head coach Chad Stelse. 'We played zone the entire first half, we slowed them down, we played with them the first half at their place. It was a two-point game at halftime. We thought it would be effective again, and it was for the most part, especially in the first half.'
For Lions junior Sullivan Kulju, it was important to avoid frustration in the face of a tough defense.
'We try not to get frustrated,' he said. 'With our success this year, with our success shooting the 3, teams always throw different defenses at us, and coaches do a great job of preparing us in practice. It's always frustrating when you can't make your shots, and they go on a little run, but I thought we did a really good job of staying poised, working the ball around, and eventually we hit some shots and that opened up the middle. For me, it's about being patient and not forcing anything because if I take a quick shot, that's two points for them on a quick break.'
The Lions continued their momentum in early in the second half, with points coming from Matthew Rolefson, Jack Sirek and Jordan Canady, but the Trojans responded first on a dunk from Dillon and then on a steal and dunk from Tyrone Powell on the next play. Dillon added a layup, and Javaree Jackson took a pass and dunked over the Lions' defense to tie the game at 37. Jackson added a layup on their next possession to put the Trojans up 39-37.
'Dunks and layups are both worth two points, so that's great for them, and we just didn't let it faze us,' Kulju said. 'You've just got to sound out the crowd. Two points is two points. You've just got to get it back.'
The game remained even until Eisenhower began to pull away with just a few minutes remaining in the game. Up 53-50 with two minutes left, the Lions began to run out the clock, forcing the Trojans to foul. Aside from a late 3 from Dillon, nothing could stave the onslaught of free throws from the Lions.
Close to the end
'We feel if we could just play some defense and rebound a little bit offensively if we play within ourselves, not try to go too fast at times, we feel we're going to be in a pretty good position,' Eisenhower coach David Scheidegger said. 'For us it started with the defense and the rebound, trying to stay aggressive, trying to stay low in stances and just play solid defense. I'm proud of the poise and the leadership because it was a seesaw battle.'
Stelse was happy with his strategy but not the results.
'I don't know if I'd have done anything differently,' he said. 'It was a 2-point game until the last three minutes, and they showed why they're 19-1 down the stretch. They had some great possessions, and we didn't.
'Our guys know we can play with anybody because we've shown it against Pewaukee, Greendale. We haven't always done it for a whole game, though, against the top teams in our division. They know they can play with anybody, but we need to finish down the stretch, and we just flat out haven't done that, and we need to figure out how to win games against great teams like that.'
With the loss, the Trojans fall the 6-8 in the Woodland West and 10-9 overall. The Lions improve to 19-1 and are 13-1 in the Woodland.
Eisenhower hosts Cudahy on Friday, Feb. 19, and ends the regular season by hosting Pewaukee on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Tosa West hits the road to play at Whitnall and Pius XI on the same dates.
(Editor's note: See stories on loss to Pewaukee and win over Milwaukee School of Languages in the Sports Shorts).