With the season hitting the stretch run, the John Carroll University men’s basketball team is playing some of their best basketball of the season, riding the wave of an eight-game winning streak.
Back-to-back wins against Otterbein College and Capital University have the Blue Streaks at the top of the Ohio Athletic Conference standings, two games ahead of Wilmington College in the loss column.
First up last week was a Wednesday night road game in Westerville between the Blue Streaks and Cardinals of Otterbein College.
Otterbein entered the game with a record of 4-10 in the conference, but it was important for the Blue Streaks to not look past the Cardinals in anticipation of the big matchup with Capital that was to follow three days later.
Senior forward Rudy Kirbus, one of the many veterans on the squad, reiterated how important each win is and exemplified the attitude of JCU.
“At this point [in] the season every game is almost like a must win if you want to win an OAC championship,” Kirbus said.
At first glance, it looked like JCU may have overlooked the Cardinals as they entered halftime on top by just four points.
Sophomore point guard Corey Shontz led a potent offensive attack in the second half that put the Blue Streaks into triple digits as they edged out Otterbein, 103-93.
“With a new half coming out, I knew that as long as I kept attacking, my teammates were going to make their shots,” said Shontz, who finished with 15 points and six assists.
Kirbus was the leading scorer with 17 points, and the senior forward also pulled down five rebounds.
Aside from Kirbus and Shontz, three other Blue Streaks contributed double-digits in points.
Senior guards Brian Dandrea and Chris Zajac, as well as junior forward Tommy Lavelle all contributed 11 points in a well-balanced scoring attack.
A quick way to get over the century mark is to take – and make – the three-ball, and the Blue Streaks did just that. As a team, they were 15 of 28 from behind the arc, good for a 53.6 percent clip on the night.
There was little time to celebrate as the Blue Streaks had to get back on the bus and fight the inclement weather to get home for a Saturday afternoon showdown with the Crusaders of Capital University.
In what was a re-match of last year’s OAC Championship game, and perhaps a preview of this year’s, the two teams went back and forth with each other.
That’s to be expected as each of the last two meetings between those two foes have needed overtime to settle the score.
Early in the second half, Capital built their lead to as many as nine points.
Some teams might have folded and gone away, but not the battle -tested Blue Streaks.
JCU chipped at the lead and eventually overcame the deficit with 4:29 remaining in the ballgame.
It was back-and-forth for the final four and a half minutes as no team ever built a larger lead than two points.
Capital trailed by two points with 30 seconds to go, but a clutch three-point shot by Capital freshman Spencer Niekamp gave his team a one-point lead with 27 seconds to go.
Blue Streaks head coach Mike Moran allowed his team the opportunity to bring the ball into the frontcourt, and called a timeout with 11 seconds to draw up a play to win the game.
With seniors on the floor, JCU got the ball into the hands of Chris Zajac, a player known for hitting the big shot in the clutch.
Zajac blew right past his defender, Capital’s star point guard D.J. Frazier, and got all the way to the hoop. His lay-up put JCU on top by one with eight seconds to go.
Capital hurried to the other end, and Frazier missed a contested jump shot and Kirbus grabbed the rebound to seal the victory for JCU.
“It was actually a play for Rudy [Kirbus],” Zajac said after the game. “But I faked it to him and luckily made the shot.”
With the win, JCU sits at 17-5 overall, and 13-3 in conference play.
The winner of the OAC earns the right to host the conference tournament at their home gymnasium. The conference tournament will be held from Feb. 24-27.
Home-court advantage proved to be vital last season as the Blue Streaks didn’t have to leave home en route to capturing the conference crown.
Three wins in four days is tough, but it makes it a little bit easier if you don’t have to travel.