There aren’t many things more rewarding in sports than avenging a loss to a conference rival. On Saturday, Feb. 1, the John Carroll University men’s basketball team got its revenge against Muskingum University in the ugliest of ways.
Fortunately, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Blue Streaks held out late and earned a 87-83 win that kept them in the Ohio Athletic Conference mix.
Similar to this year’s previous contest between the two teams, it was a back and forth battle. Muskingum held a small lead for most of the opening minutes, but it was hard to tell through the deafening roar of a packed Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center.
The pro-Blue Streak crowd rose to its feet during the apparent dunk contest that started with junior Jake Hollinger’s two-handed slam that put the Blue Streaks ahead at 17:54 in the first half.
Freshman forward Doug Caputo followed with a dunk of his own at 14:36 to bring JCU to a 10-9 deficit.
Despite the return of an enthusiastic and fast-paced JCU offense, Muskingum guard Dave Brown erupted for an impressive offensive performance of his own in the first half, dropping 14 of his game-high 26 points. Brown helped the Fighting Muskies to their biggest lead of the night, draining a three ball at 12:54 that was followed by a jumper from Muskingum guard Logan Kimble to stretch the lead to 19-12.
The Blue Streaks quickly jumped back into the game with help from sophomore guard Nicholas Ruckel, who scored 10 of his season-high 14 points off the bench in the first half. Ruckel, who hasn’t seen the court much this season, proved to be key for the Blue Streaks not only on offense, but also on the defensive end.
“Ruckel has been working really hard all year in practice and now he’s finally getting his shot out there and is taking full advantage of it,” sophomore guard Will Starks said. “He’s a great athlete who can really push the tempo, get to the rim and defend. He’s going to help us a ton moving forward.”
JCU entered the second half with a 45-41 lead. The point difference would not get much bigger for either team the remainder of the game. The second half featured a total of four lead changes and neither team led by more than seven points at any time.
Sophomore guard Joey Vuyancih came alive in the second half, scoring 10 points. Vuyancih helped the Blue Streaks gain crucial momentum, penetrating the defense and scoring a layup at 11:20. Hollinger followed it up with another monstrous dunk to give JCU its biggest lead of the game, 67-60.
Muskingum didn’t give up and came back quickly to take a 75-74 lead following a pair of Clay Owens free throws with 5:22 remaining in the game. The partial collapse was largely due to the Blue Streaks horrific day shooting at the free throw line. Muskingum shot 25 for 30 from the free throw line while JCU shot a mere 15-30, allowing the Fighting Muskies to crawl back into the lead.
Fortunately for the Blue Streaks, sophomore forward Simon Kucharewicz flipped a switch in the closing minutes and helped lead the Blue Streaks offense. A two-handed dunk at 4:35 gave JCU the 76-75 lead. Clutch 3-pointers from junior guard David Hendrickson and Vuyancih followed, giving the Blue Streaks a decisive lead.
Despite losing the rebounding battle 42-37 and shooting an abysmal 50 percent from the free throw line, JCU proved their mettle through impressive play off the bench and stingy defense down the finishing stretch.
The win split the season matchup with Muskingum and gives the Blue Streaks important momentum with the OAC Tournament approaching. The finish was even more satisfying considering the Fighting Muskies stunned the Blue Streaks on a buzzer-beater in New Concord in the first matchup.
“It just felt good to get back on the right track, especially on our home court,” Ruckel said. “We had a couple tough ones in a row and needed a nice win like that. I think we have a great shot at winning the OAC Tournament. This is a tough league but we can play with anyone when we show up.”