West Valley Preps
Throw out the records. Throw out the rankings. Throw out the venue and the stakes of the game.
Any time Peoria Unified School District rivals Ironwood and Liberty play a boys basketball game, it will be a cross between a chess match and a demolition derby. And the outcome will hang in the balance until the final minute.
The teams enacted their usual drama on the biggest stage yet Friday night at Liberty — a 5A play-in matchup for the right to advance into the main bracket. No. 22 Ironwood (15-11) emerged with the win on senior point guard Tyrese Eugene’s 10-foot turnaround jumper with .1 of a second left for the 70-68 victory.
“We have the confidence. Once I got the ball, my instinct was to just go get a bucket. I was thinking either I make it or I don’t. But it was all confidence,” Eugene said.
By the seeds, this was a fairly major upset. But anyone who has watched these teams square off four times in the last two years — and seen each game decided by less than 10 points — knew this one would be an even battle until the end.
Several times in the final three quarters the visitors were on the verge of taking control, only to see the Lions come roaring back into the game thanks to their press.
“It’s unfortunate because Mark (Wood) is one of my best friends as a coach. I’m so glad he’s moving to 6A and I promise you I’ll never schedule him again,” Ironwood coach Jordan Augustine said. “We’re really familiar with each other. He was making great adjustments on how we were trying to break the press. We made one more play.”
The Eagles, and senior forward Ajang Aguek in particular served notice early that they were here to upset the apple cart. Aguek scored six points and grabbed five rebounds in the first quarter as the Eagles grabbed a 15-13 lead.
By halftime, the lanky 6-7 forward had 15 points and eight board. He contributed in a variety of ways, hitting a pair of three-pointers, grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring, and finger rolling in layups when the Eagles broke the press.
“I just came out like it was our last game. We had 32 minutes left and I was playing hard,” Aguek said.
Yet Liberty claimed a brief five-point lead in the second (25-20) after senior forward Connor Ray drained his second trey and junior guards Josh Ursery and Jacob Edahl got to the line.
Ironwood responded with a 12-0 run late in the quarter, thanks to threes from sophomore Dominic Gonzalez and freshman J.J. White and six points by Aguek.
Trailing by seven, the Lions righted themselves with a pair of quick buckets in the final seconds of the half. Edahl made an up-an-under layup and Ursery stole a pass and slammed it home just before the buzzer.
Ursery’s 11th point of the half cut the home team’s deficit to 32-29.
“Everything was in the flow. (Josh) asserted himself and really went after it,” Liberty coach Mark Wood said. “He was feeling it and I trusted his judgment.”
Consecutive threes by Ray and Ursery gave the Lions a brief lead in the third. But senior big man Dhol Majak showed off his range and Aguek scored a couple easy buckets alone underneath to regain Ironwood’s advantage.
Many off those feeds came after Eugene drew the defense and kicked to Aguek and fellow senior big man Dhol Majak (11 points, 5 rebounds). This included a highlight-reel double spin dribble and dish to Aguek for an easy layup.
Eugene finished the night with a near-triple double (12 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists) and continually broke down the Lions half-court traps.
“I’ve been playing against Liberty since my freshman year. We know how they play. They want to press the whole game and speed us up. We tried to slow it down and if we did have a drive, get in and give it to our shooters or pass on dives by our bigs,” Eugene said.
Moye’s three brought Liberty within one late in the third but Gonzalez answered with a triple of his own. Ironwood claimed a brief six-point lead, but Ray’s trey and two free throws by Ursery made it 53-52 Eagles after three quarters.
That duo provided the bulk of the home team’s offense as Ursery led with 25 points and Ray chipped in 15. But the Lions’ leading scorer, senior Quentin Guilford — who averaged more than 20 points per game this season — could not find the range all night.
“Both teams do their homework. But Q is my guy. I’ll die with that kid,” Wood said. “I feel terrible for him. But, at the same time, his defensive effort was astounding. That’s the finicky part about basketball. Sometimes the shot doesn’t fall.”
Guilford finished with three points and did not try to force it later in the game. But that also unbalanced the offense and led to Ray and Ursery taking a higher volume of shots.
“I though readjusted and in the second half our guys had better movement and better looks. We have struggled with the half court offensively, but you have to credit Ironwood’s defense,” Wood said. “I hurt for our kids but I’m happy for Jordan Augustine and his program, they played a great game tonight.”
Ironwood nearly put the game away early in the fourth, as Majak scored, then dunked off another expert feed from Eugene. Then Eugene scored and junior guard Cassius Carmichael brought the visiting side to its feet by grabbing a long rebound and driving the length of the floor for an emphatic dunk and 61-52 lead.
Aguek and Ursery each picked up a fourth foul. Ray completed an old-fashioned three-point play and Moye scored to bring the home team within four.
Ironwood was leading by 5 with 1:39 left when Carmichael picked up an offensive foul. Liberty then made its last stand.
Ursery hit a three and it was 66-64, but he fouled out on the Eagles’ next possession. Gonzalez made both free throws, only for Edahl to answer with a three cutting the lead to one.
Jacob Patterson stole the ball but could not score. However Gonzalez missed the front end of a one-and-one, Liberty rebounded and after a scrum under the Lions’ basket Moye was fouled. He missed the first and made the second to tie.
“Elijah has been the unsung hero. He’s been a kid who doesn’t nearly get the credit he deserves. I want people to know how important he was to us because he quietly did his job for three years. He was coachable, he was humble and he gave us everything he had. He always asked what the team needed and did it,” Wood said.
That set up Eugene’s late heroics that will send the Eagles to another familiar foe, top seed Deer Valley, for a 5A first round game Tuesday night.
“I’m about to cry because those (seniors) are my guys. My prayer was that God would give us another 32 because those kids deserved it. They’ve done so much for this program to get it where it’s at now. I don’t want to go home because I don’t want to say goodbye to those kids,” Augustine said. “I can’t say enough about their maturity down the stretch. Those battles (in the Metro Region) all season where why we were prepared to do what we did tonight.”