The Eisenhower Knights are 2-0 this postseason when faced with a "win-or-go-home" scenario.
If they want to continue this postseason run and advance to the PIAA Class A Sweet Sixteen, they will have to improve upon that mark at 8 p.m. Friday evening when they play District 9 champion Johnsonburg in the opening round of the PIAA Class A Playoffs at Clarion University.
The regular season wasn't particularly memorable for the Knights who had to win three of their last four games to finish with an 8-14 record. All that matters to Eisenhower and coach Dave Allenson is what has happened lately. The Knights are 2-1 in the playoffs and 5-2 in their last seven outings. The only losses in that span were to Cochranton -itself in the PIAA Class A playoff field - and Class AAA Conneaut.
"I guess the thing that sticks out most in these last few games is our effort," said Allenson. "That's the biggest thing. We've played together as a team more consistently and put a solid effort out there each time out."
Eisenhower (10-15) opened the District 10 Class A playoffs with a 65-47 win over Commodore Perry. That win gave Eisenhower at least two games, but in the D-10 semifinals, the Knights were stopped by Cochranton for the third time this season, 52-34.
That set up a do-or-die matchup with VisionQuest in the D-10 Class A Consolation game that saw the Knights emerge as a 51-43 winner. Eisenhower claimed the state playoff berth despite watching nearly all of a 17-point first half lead evaporate against the Golden Eagles. Another big concern for Allenson was the foul shooting troubles that continue to plague his team. The Knights were 14-of-33 from the line against VisionQuest, including 11-of-26 in the fourth quarter. At one stretch of the fourth, Eisenhower missed eight straight freebies.
The Knights will need another big game from 6'2 senior forward Aaron Lundmark against the D-9 Rams. Lundmark had scored over 400 points in his final season for the Knights, including over 16 points per game in the three playoff games. Lundmark scored a game-high 23 points in the win over VisionQuest.
Also contributing for the Knights during the postseason have been 6'2 senior forward Ryan Williams (10.7 ppg), 6'2 sophomore forward Jarrett Johnson (6.3 ppg) and 6'1 senior guard Colin Shine (6 ppg). Williams has shown the ability to get hot at any time, canning 20 points in the win over Commodore Perry.
As can be expected, Eisenhower's first round PIAA opponent will be its toughest test to date. The Rams (26-2) recently won their first D-9 Class A championship in 30 years and are literally two baskets away from being undefeated this season.
The Rams' only losses on the season came to Smethport (54-54 on December 19) and Ridgway (44-42) on February 5. Both the Hubbers and Elkers are also representing District 9 in the PIAA Class A playoffs. As their record suggests, the Rams pose a number of problems for Allenson and his Knights.
"They are probably one of the smartest teams I've ever seen play the game," said Allenson. "They just have basketball instincts. They don't go very deep, but everyone who plays has tremendous instincts and they are always in the right spot at the right time. They are just a strong, versatile team."
The Rams have a formidable one-two punch on offense led by 5'9 junior guard Cameron Grumley and 5'10 junior guard Cole Peterson. Grumley - the younger brother of Johnsonburg's all-time leading scorer Calvin Grumley (2007, 2,255 points). leads the team with 15.8 ppg with Peterson close behind with 15 ppg.
The duo hardly have to do things alone with four additional players scoring at five points per game this season. Those players include 6'1 senior forward Quinn Luhr (8.5 ppg), 5'9 senior guard Mitch Holmberg (7.6 ppg), 6'0 senior forward Kyle Sheldon (6.6 ppg) and 6'0 senior forward Frank Kocjancic (4.9 ppg).
"It's difficult to tell what kind of game you will see from them," said Allenson. "Again, that speaks to their versatility. In order to keep things close, we need to take care of the ball, get past their guards and make shots fall. We can't let up for a single second. The term I keep using is 'focus.' We have to focus the entire 32 minutes."
The Rams are battle tested in tournament play, compiling a 6-0 record in two postseason tournaments (AML Tournament, D-9 Tournament). The Rams beat Brockway and Elk County Catholic to win the AML crown before disposing of Union, Elk County Catholic, Smethport (in OT) and Ridgway (37-29) to take D-9's top PIAA seed.
The winner of Friday's game advances to Tuesday's Sweet Sixteen round against the winner of Friday's opening round game between District 5 champion Shade (25-1) and District 7 (WPIAL) third seed North Catholic (16-6).