Northwest knocks off another highly-ranked opponent
The Shawnee Mission Northwest gym is clamoring for a nickname.
"The Snakepit," "Dusty's Den," "The Cougars' Cage," whatever you want to call it, the Cougars' home for hoops has proven to be a dangerous place to play for the area's top ranked teams, as the state's No. 1 ranked team, Shawnee Mission East, found out last Wednesday, falling to Northwest 44-43 in a gym of frenzied Cougar fans.
The win marked the second time in just more than a week that the Cougars had knocked off a top five team at Northwest, having dispatched then No. 4-ranked Lawrence 70-68 in double overtime the previous Tuesday. It also represented a first in Northwest basketball history as the 2005-2006 squad became the first boys basketball squad to start 6-0.
After the game, Cougars coach Ben Meseke and many of his players were quick to credit the Cougar faithful with a hand in clinching the history-making win.
"Our 'sixth man' was huge tonight," Meseke said. "They were so loud and full of enthusiasm, and it's good, clean enthusiasm. That makes it fun."
"It's loud," said senior point guard Dusty Burdolski in the comparatively silent gym 20 minutes after the win. "It hurts my ears sometimes when I'm out there. It's the best place to play around here right now."
"When the crowd gets going, it's hard for other teams to get going," echoed senior guard Brandon Cox.
Though the Cougar crowd was loud throughout the evening, the Lancers kept the crowd from reaching its fever pitch for a while. East jumped out to an early 8-0 lead behind senior Mike Drier and a physical, full-court press that caused several early Northwest turnovers.
Though the press gave the Lancers the ball back on several occasions, its physical nature caused several fouls and put the Cougars in a handful of one-and-one foul shooting situations before the end of the first quarter. Regardless, East ended the first quarter leading 11-3, holding the Cougars to one first-quarter bucket.
The Lancers grabbed their biggest lead of the ballgame, 13-3, early in the second quarter off a power post move from standout senior post J.D. Christie. The Cougars then took off on a 9-2 run, capped off by a Burdolski three-pointer from the top of the key that brought the Cougars to within three at 15-12.
The Lancers eventually pushed the lead back up to six before buckets by Burdolski and Cox helped cut the halftime deficit to four, 22-18. Burdolski led all scorers in the quarter with 10 points, giving him 12 by halftime.
While Burdolski was the catalyst for the second-quarter comeback, Cox provided the spark in the third quarter. After Northwest sophomore Matt Page brought the Cougars to within two on an offensive rebound and putback, Cox tied the game on a driving baseline jumper then stole the ensuing Lancer possession and drove downcourt before pulling up in the lane and canning a jumper that gave the Cougars their first lead of the game, 26-24. Though the Lancers would reclaim a four-point lead at 30-26, the Cougars ended the quarter on a 6-2 run to tie the game with Page draining a driving pull-up jumper in the lane as time expired. It was a sign of things to come.
The Cougars attempted to gain control of the game early in the final frame, going on a 5-0 run behind a three-pointer from Cox and a bucket inside from Page. However, Christie (who led all scorers with 22 points) was not about to let East fall that easily. Four consecutive points from Christie put the Lancers back up 41-39 halfway through the quarter. Page followed with a length-of-the-floor lay up through traffic and that tied the game at 41-41. The two teams traded free throws in the final two minutes until East found itself with a 43-42 lead going into the final 30 seconds.
On the Cougars' final possession, Northwest got a good look around the basket, but missed. Senior forward Darrell Stallings pulled down the offensive rebound, but his follow shot also missed. But Page was in the right place at the right time on that one, as he gathered Stallings' miss on the right baseline and calmly drained a nine-footer to put the Cougars up 44-43 with .8 seconds left on the clock.
An appeal by the East coaches put up two seconds on the clock and many of the Cougar fans in the crowd couldn't help but flashback to the previous Tuesday when, after a Dusty Burdolski three had put the Cougars up 55-52, an appeal by Lawrence coaches put three seconds on the clock and Lawrence's Chance Riley had tied the game with a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
This time there would be no buzzer-beater. Page added to his fourth-quarter heroics by slapping the ball away as time expired, sealing the Cougars' victory at 44-43.
After the game, Page admitted that the final flurry of activity took him almost by surprise. When asked what was going through his head on the last possession, Page responded, "Nothing. I just caught it and shot it. It wasn't until afterwards that I went, 'Whoa! That was the winning shot.'"
For Meseke and the rest of the Cougars, the key to victory lay in surviving that first early flurry of an East press.
"They've got a heck of a press," Meseke said. "That's a hard press to break. They've got lots of speed, a lot of bodies. We had to somehow survive."
"That was the most physical team we've played," Cox said. "So we let them be physical with us and get the fouls. Once we showed we could slow the ball down, things got a lot easier."
Burdolski admitted that nerves might have played a small part in the Cougars' slow start.
"At the beginning of the game all the guys were intimidated," Burdolski said. "Once we got the jitters out we just played our game. They were all over the double teams which meant that there was always one man open and we were finding a lot of open back doors."
With the win, the likelihood of the Cougars remaining unranked in the coming weeks is slim. But, according to Cox, that won't change anything about the Cougars' approach.
"I think that, just with the guys we have, nobody cares what we're ranked," Cox said as the last of Cougars friends and family left the gym on Saturday night. "Nobody's out here for publicity. We're here for each other."