Coach Dave Scheidegger realized his New Berlin Eisenhower boys basketball team struggled to find itself early in the 2016-17 season. Based on the Lions’ stunning come-from-behind, 49-48 overtime victory at Pius XI on Feb. 7 and a 58-54 upset of Waunakee on Feb. 11, the Lions seem to be figuring everything out just in time for the postseason.
In addition to the victories over teams ranked in the Division 2 state coaches poll, the Lions downed Greendale, 65-35, on Feb. 10 and now have won eight straight to run their record to 15-5 overall and 10-4 in the Woodland West.
“What I saw out of the guys (against Pius) is just a belief in the things they do, their teammates and themselves, which wasn’t always there at the start of the year,” Scheidegger said. “But there’s now an ownership of what we’re doing, and our composure has improved a lot. We’re understanding that it’s a 36-minute game.”
However, this Woodland West matchup required 40 minutes for a winner to emerge. Ike senior Sullivan Kulju drained 2 free throws with 28 seconds left in overtime to give the Lions the win.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever hit big free throws in my life – I always miss long,” Kulju said. “Today, I knew it was a big game, and my teammates worked so hard, so I told myself I just gotta finish those.”
Although the Popes’ biggest first-half lead was just 11 points, their dominant inside defense made that deficit seem larger. However, Eisenhower closed the half with an 8-3 run to cut Pius’ lead to 6, and the Lions opened the second half with an 11-6 stretch to pull within 1.
The Lions managed to steal the ball with under a minute left in regulation, and junior Bryce Miller capped off the comeback with a 3-pointer with 45 seconds left to play that would send the game to overtime.
Pius’ Zach Zavada scored 3 of his 13 points on a bucket-and-one to open the overtime period, but that would be all the scoring for the Popes. Eisenhower’s Matthew Rolefson countered with 2 of his game-high 16 points to cut Pius’ lead to one once again before Kulju gave the Lions their only lead of the night with his two free throws.
The close victory over Pius XI, which entered the week ranked sixth in the state coaches poll, certainly is a morale booster for the surging Lions. But it’s particularly sweet considering the Popes handed Ike a buzzer-beater loss in New Berlin back in December.
“It feels really good – there’s no better feeling than that,” Kulju said. “A couple teams have gotten us on buzzer beaters, so it feels good to final get one for ourselves.”
Lions down Greendale, Waunakee
Eisenhower had little trouble with Greendale, leading 40-12 at halftime en route to a 30-point victory. Kulju and Rolefson each scored 13 points against the Panthers, while Joe Lang added 12 points and Miller scored 11 points.
In a game added to the schedule late to fill a hole left by an early-season cancellation, the Lions went to Madison College and pulled the upset over Waunakee (16-2), which is ranked third in Division 2 and entered with its lone loss being to second-ranked LaCrosse Central.
The win gave Eisenhower two wins over ranked teams, which leaves the Lions with three wins over teams currently ranked in the top 10 in Division 2, as they opened the season with a victory over Milwaukee Washington.
"It was a short turnaround with a ride on the school bus for an hour and a half," Scheidegger said. "Our kids were excited and ready to play. We came out like gangbusters and got in some foul trouble. We had a strong second half and did some good things down the stretch. It turned out for the reason we scheduled it to begin with, to learn poise and composure against a good team and to challenge us to improve. That's why we took this game."
Eisenhower trailed, 24-20, at halftime but surged after the break to take a double-digit lead. The Lions were then able to hold off the Warriors' run, as Miller scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in the second half.
Andrew Gruman contributed to this story