by BRYAN EVERSON
Utica Eisenhower senior John Cukaj couldn’t recall hitting another game-tying or game-winning shot, so Wednesday night made for a pretty good first time.
His pull-up 3-pointer at the buzzer sent the game into overtime, eventually leading to a 62-56 victory over Chippewa Valley.
Following an Ike turnover and a split pair of free throws by Chippewa Valley senior Jaylen Ross with 14 seconds left, the Eagles’ first try at tying the game went terribly awry, a half-court pass from senior Brandon Munn that slipped out of the hands of a teammate in the corner.
The second chance couldn’t have gone better. With seven seconds on the clock, a turnover allowed Cukaj the opportunity to get off a shot over a defender that he was able to sink, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
“I’m like, ‘I’ve got to shoot this,’ I don’t even care if we win,” he said. “If it goes in, we’re going to overtime. If I miss, we’re going to lose. I just chucked it up, it went in, and everyone started going crazy. It was sweet.”
Overtime proved to be even sweeter for the Eagles (5-4, 1-3 MAC Red), who immediately got a quick basket from junior Dante Candela, and two turnovers by the Big Reds (3-6, 1-3 MAC Red) led to points from senior Matt Donahue and Cukaj that provided a 56-50 lead.
It wasn’t until 54 seconds left post regulation that Ross was able to finally knock down a 3 for Chippewa Valley’s first points in overtime, but by that time the visitors were forced to extend the game with fouls, and even the few that Ike missed didn’t provide enough opportunity to let the lead slip away.
Chippewa Valley coach Kevin Voss speculated that Cukaj’s shot may have foreshadowed how overtime would play out for his team.
“We talked about how we wanted to get it inbounds [in the final seconds], we weren’t supposed to dribble,” Voss said.
“He wasn’t the guy we were getting it to, but I guess he didn’t understand the moment, and that’s tough. If we make a free throw right before that, we’re up four, and it’s probably academic.”
“They got an opportunity to capitalize, and that’s such a momentum builder, it’s almost predictable in overtime that they’re going to hurt you.”
Cukaj’s critical shot wasn’t his only make of the night. The senior was precise, scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and also pulled down a team-high nine boards.
The ending proved to be redemption for Ike, who almost let a semi-comfortable lead that it held at both halftime and the end of three quarters slip away. A 3-pointer by junior Billy Krempa, who had a team-high 18 points for Ike, had the hosts up seven with over five minutes remaining. But Chippewa Valley was able to make a late charge and take over, with a steal and a layup by Ross to cap off a 9-1 run that sent the Big Reds ahead by one.
Inside makes by Ross and standout guard D’lano Woods gave the Big Reds a four-point advantage with 2:11, though the Eagles punched back swiftly. Munn drove uncontested to the rack and scored, and Cukaj used his positioning for a put-back bucket on a missed 3- pointer that made it 47-all with 1:30 to go.
Chippewa Valley senior Dimitri Alderson hit a pair from the charity stripe with 31 seconds left, and a turnover by Ike set up the chance from the line to ice the game by the visitors when they went to the line again, setting up the final sequence.
“We gave a few things toward the end, but we had resiliency,” Ike coach Dave Schwesinger said. “They kept fighting, never hung their heads. John gets that great steal at the end and hits that shot, it was amazing.
“The kids took that momentum and went with it. Those first few minutes of overtime, they were incredible.”
Both teams are ones that enjoy the long ball, but on a night where neither could find much success with it — Ike was 8-of-28 from distance, Chippewa Valley 5- of-33 — forcing turnovers and scoring inside were critical. Munn had 11 total attempts from the field, but made all five of his makes inside the arc and finished with 13 points.
The Eagles were able to strip the ball with some success from Woods, but the junior still managed 13 points, eight boards and six assists for Chippewa Valley. Ross finished with a team-high 16 points.
A quick turnaround will see Ike travel Friday night to Grosse Pointe South, while the Big Reds will look to snap a three-game losing streak when they host Stevenson.