BOYS HOOPS: It’s a win, so Ike’s in

OIL CITY – Eisenhower let nearly all of a 17-point lead evaporate and missed 15 fourth-quarter free throws – including eight straight at one point – during Friday’s District 10 Class A Consolation Game with VisionQuest at Oil City High School.

None of that matters now.

All that matters is the Knights (10-15) survived and qualified for the PIAA Class A playoffs with a 51-43 victory over the Golden Eagles. Next up for the Knights will be the District 9 champion – either Ridgway or Johnsonburg – on Friday, March 8, at a time and venue to be determined. The Elkers and Rams will play for the D-9 Class A title at 8 p.m. Saturday at Clarion University.

After finishing the regular season at 8-14, the Knights hardly looked like a team destined for the PIAA playoffs – on paper anyway. According to senior combo player and leading scorer Aaron Lundmark, the regular season means little now.

“Nothing we did during the regular season matters now,” said Lundmark. “It’s all about who is the hottest right now. You see it in March Madness every year. We got hot at the right time and are going to the state playoffs.”

Ike coach Dave Allenson – who has now led both the Ike boys and girls basketball teams to the PIAA playoffs – said the ability has been there all season, even at the toughest of times.

“The kids showed a belief in themselves all year,” said Allenson. “I think early on, they didn’t really have the confidence needed to win close games and we didn’t always play as a team when it mattered most. As the kids have grown together and gained confidence, I think they’ve gained a much better feeling about where they are as a team.”

The Knights led 7-4 just past halfway through the first quarter when VisionQuest’s 6’5 senior forward Demetrius McLennan appeared to be warming up. McLennan grabbed an offensive board and connected on a putback to make it 7-6 and had another easy look seconds later.

That easy look didn’t find the bottom of the net and, on the Knights’ very next possession, Ryan Williams hit a three-pointer to make it 10-6 and put momentum back in Ike’s favor. Williams’ three-pointer would be the final basket of the quarter until Ike’s final possession of the first. The locals ran nearly 60 seconds off the clock before Colin Shine buried a deep three right before the buzzer to put the Knights up 13-6 after one.

Shine carried that momentum into the second quarter where he scored the first two buckets of the stanza to push the lead into double figures. Moments later, Lundmark hit another three-pointer and the Knights led, 20-6.

The teams traded buckets the rest of the half with Ike’s lead swelling to as many as 17 points. VisionQuest’s Tonell Bigalow beat the halftime buzzer with a floater in the lane, but that only cut Ike’s lead to 26-14.

And it didn’t take away from what was a very impressive first half.

“Whenever we play our game, we feel like we’re as good as anyone,” said senior forward Nathan O’Brien. “In the first half, we played at our speed and played to our power points and we’re pretty tough when we’re able to do that.”

McLennan – easily VisionQuest’s leading scorer with 18.1 points per game – was held to just two points in the first half and 10 points for the game. He finished the game with only one made field goal, the first quarter putback.

“We tried to make him play out a little further from the hoop than where he’s comfortable,” said Allenson. “That made it difficult for him to do what he does best. Both Nate (O’Brien) and Ryan (Williams) did a great job on him in the first half.”

In the second half, the Golden Eagles (9-16) scored two quick buckets to get within 26-18 with 5:34 left in the third. The lead had been trimmed to seven points with 4:20 left in the quarter and Bigalow’s jumper with 3:25 remaining made it 27-21 – the closest VisionQuest had been since late in the first quarter.

Instead of folding, the Knights responded with a quick 6-0 spurt that featured buckets from Shine, Alex Johnson and Lundmark. Despite its struggles in the third, Eisenhower led 34-26 with just the fourth quarter remaining.

The Golden Eagles went to work on extending the game, fouling the Knights and sending them to the line while trying to chip into their deficit. Eisenhower nearly allowed them to do so.

McLennan fouled out with 6:54 remaining and with the Knights up, 35-31. Over the next three minutes, the Knights were sent to the free throw line eight times. All eight shots were missed.

“They make them in practice so I know they are capable,” said Allenson. “As a coach, you feel very helpless in that situation. There’s nothing you can do for them at that point.”

This time, the Knights were able to get away with their lack of execution at the charity stripe.

Despite the Knights converting just 11-of-26 free throws in the final quarter – and 14-of-33 for the game (both 42 percent) – VisionQuest simply couldn’t make enough shots to take the lead. It got as close as 37-35 with 6:20 to play, but the Knights finished the game with a 14-8 run to close things out.

Lundmark led all scorers with 23 points, Shine added nine markers, Johnson eight points and Williams six more. The Golden Eagles were led by the 11 points of Bigalow and Jaleel Adams with McLennan adding 10 points and Jessie Robinson nine.