BY JOHN BOHNENKAMP
DONNELLSON – Evan Swanson warned his Central Lee boys basketball team about Van Buren County before Tuesday’s Class 2A district first-round game.
The coach felt he needed to remind the Hawks of his warning at halftime, when they trailed by six.
It took overtime, though, before they could escape.
Central Lee’s 71-64 win over the winless Warriors was never easy, but it is February and it is the postseason, and that’s what Swanson told his team.
“Playoffs,” he said. “Survive and advance. That’s all that matters.”
Central Lee (7-14) plays at West Burlington (14-6) in Thursday’s second-round game.
Van Buren County finished the season 0-14. And it was that record that concerned Swanson heading into the game.
And he repeated his concern when a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the first half gave the Warriors a 26-20 lead.
“I told them the same thing I told them before the game started — Van Buren isn’t just going to roll over for us,” Swanson said. “Records don’t matter right now. Matchups don’t matter right now. At the end of the day, just win. And if you don’t, you’re done. Telling seniors this could be their last few minutes to play, it can be impactful. So I think they finally understood Van Buren was here to play and they stepped it up in the second half.”
Dylan Stuecker had 19 of his 24 points in the second half and in overtime. Jaxon Betker had 18 points, 13 in the final 40 seconds of the fourth quarter and in overtime. Kaleb Sanders had 11 points, eight in the second half. Derick Denning was scoreless in the first half, but finished with eight points. All four are seniors.
“(Betker) has been playing well for us all season,” Swanson said. “Dylan coming out and hitting those threes to start the second half was huge. A lot of guys stepped up for us tonight.”
Betker’s 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter put Central Lee up, 57-55. The Warriors tied the game with 22 seconds left on a jumper by Jackson Manning, and had the ball for a final shot, but Lane Davis’s jumper missed, sending the game to overtime.
Central Lee’s Seth Mayes opened the scoring in overtime with a cutback. Betker added a 3-pointer a minute later, and the Hawks were up 62-57. He then scored Central Lee’s next five points, as the Hawks pushed the lead to 67-61.
Van Buren rallied to get within 67-64, but Stuecker’s two free throws and Sanders’ putback of a Stuecker free-throw miss provided the final margin.
Manning led Van Buren with 24 points. Owen Loeffler had 15, and Davis added 11.
“We haven’t won a playoff game in two years,” Swanson said. “So they were thrilled, I was thrilled. I let them know that while it feels good, we’re not done. Just winning one playoff game isn’t enough.”