The style of victory remains the same for the Cardiac Crusaders, but Saturday's opus was a little more meaningful.
Kapaun Mt. Carmel is heading back to the 5A state tournament to defend its championship.
In form, Kapaun trailed by as much as nine early in the ballgame with Goddard Eisenhower. But the Crusader way has been for someone to spark the team's intensity in the games that count most.
Sometimes it is sharpshooter Braden Hullings. Others, it is Toby Baxter coming up clutch in the final seconds. Maybe it is Jeremy Lickteig splitting the defense for a high-velocity dunk.
Against Eisenhower, it was Atir Cherne.
“Cherne caught fire. He made a couple threes,” said Eisenhower coach Steve Blue. “Those threes that Cherne hit in that third quarter were just big. They had all the momentum, and we could just not stop it, no matter what we did.”
Eisenhower had that momentum early. The Tigers led most of the second quarter. They briefly lost the lead, but stole it right back when Dylan Kuhn knifed a pass to Masen Allen in the interior for a buzzer beating shot that put Eisenhower ahead 26-25 heading into halftime.
“We walked in, and we saw the crowd here early. They were pretty hyped up when they came out,” Cherne said. “In the first half, they kept hitting shots and we didn't have an answer.”
Questions were addressed during the break.
Timmy Hamilton hit a bucket and Hullings followed with a layup and steal to put the Crusaders up three in the third.
With three minutes to go in the quarter, Cherne sank a corner three to put Kapaun up 37-30. That was the appetizer. The main course was still to come.
The Tigers looked ready to roar back when Daniel Southwell set his sights on Trevon Evans, floating him an alley oop for a dunk that popped the Eisenhower crowd off its feet.
Seconds later, Cherne knocked the air out of the crowd with another 3-pointer. The shot put Kapaun up 44-34.
“I was ready after I hit that first one. They got that dunk and I was like 'all right, we have to answer back,'” Cherne said. “I got the open look, and I was ready to shoot.”
The Crusader lead bloated to as much as 13 in the fourth quarter. Eisenhower made a commendable comeback, as Matt Morris mopped up a miss for a putback to trim the deficit to 58-54 late, but time was a factor.
Kapaun finished off a 62-57 win.
Eisenhower was out of sync after Morris got whistled for his second foul late in the first quarter. The Tigers survived for a bit without him, but without his body in the paint, the offense lost its feel.
“Any time he's been out of the ballgame this year, we've struggled. He's our major inside presence, as far as scoring,” Blue said. “Any time he's not in the game, it's that much harder for Trevon to get open or Brennan Stempe to get open.”
Eisenhower (19-2) was led by 22 points from Evans, and 15 from Morris – 11 coming in the second half.
Kapaun was balanced, with four starters hitting double figures. Hullings led the way with 15, followed by Lickteig's 12, Baxter's 11 and Cherne's 10.
The Crusaders (16-6) seem amped up for whatever challenge awaits at state, but no defending champion goes into state without an enormous weight pushing on its shoulders.
“We've had a bullseye on our back, and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger as the year goes on,” said Kapaun coach John Cherne III. “I think there is a lot of pressure on us.”