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Kapaun works overtime to stay unbeaten

Published Jan. 6 at 10:25 p.m. | Last updated Jan. 6 at 10:26 p.m.

Kapaun Mount Carmel coach John Cherne calls January a defining month for high school basketball teams.

It’s a time when players settle into roles, trudge through the dog days of practice and mold themselves into what they’ll be at season’s end.

In the City League, a defining game can loom around any corner. Kapaun may have smacked head on into it Friday, surviving fierce second-half challenges from visiting East to win 72-69 in overtime.

After surrendering a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of the third quarter and a 14-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation, Kapaun outscored East 9-6 in overtime to improve to 7-0.

“We need to learn from this,” Cherne said. “January is a very difficult month.… We were very fortunate to survive this challenge.”

Junior Mitchell Woodward led five Kapaun players in double figures with 21 points, including a three-point play with 2:12 remaining in the extra period to put the Crusaders up 67-63. Woodward hit one of two free throws for the game’s final point, then watched as East’s Michael McKinney hit the backboard with an unsuccessful half-court attempt at the buzzer.

“They kind of sped us up a bit,” Woodward said. “I think we didn’t move the ball around as much and got a little lackluster.

“But our fans were great, and once we got that early lead in overtime, we knew we’d have them behind us.”

East (4-3, 4-3 City League), which got 15 points from McKinney, trailed 30-22 at halftime and 44-34 with 2:50 remaining in the third. But the Aces closed with a flurry, tying the score at 46 after back-to-back baskets by Tony Silmon.

“I know it’s cliché, but the game is about peaks and valleys,” Cherne said. “Everybody is going to make a push at some point. As good a team and as athletic as they are, they were going to make a push.”

Make it two.

Kapaun dominated the early stages of the fourth quarter, as Thomas Wells had two steals in the opening minute to help the Crusaders regain the lead. Wells was whistled for his fourth foul, but hit a three-pointer before going to the bench to give Kapaun a 55-47 lead.

The Crusaders extended their lead to 63-49 on Mark Hutton’s free throws with 2:21 remaining in regulation. But McKinney answered with a three, and East took the cue to rally. Elijah Kelly and McKinney added baskets, Emilio Valentin scored off a turnover and Jaylen Randle hit a three to slice Kapaun’s lead to 63-61.

The Aces pulled even on Kelly’s two free throws with 23 seconds left in regulation, then had a chance to win it. East forced a turnover and McKinney drove to the basket and scored with 0.9 seconds remaining, but was called for charging into Wells.

“Thomas was struggling to get his shot, and I told him you have to be our best defensive player. He took a risk with four fouls and we were fortunate that it paid off.”

Kapaun scored seven of its nine overtime points on free throws. Chris Meitzner was 4 for 4 in the extra period and finished with 17 points. Hutton and Wells each added 15.

Zion Fralin and Randle each scored 11 points for East.

“Joe’s done a great job over break,” Cherne said of East’s Joe Jackson, his coaching counterpart. “His team has shown vast improvement.

“They’re a tough, athletic team. They did a really good job executing plays down the stretch and we struggled.”

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EAST: McKinney 15, Kelly 4, Valentin 7, Fralin 11, Caldwell 6, Randle 11, Finney 4, Thomas 5, Silmon 4, Love 2.

KAPAUN: Hutton 15, Meitzner 17, Wells 15, Bell 2, Woodward 21, Valentas 2.

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