Curtis Uhlenhake gave a raucous crowd what it came to see…a dramatic end to the game and an end to Versailles’ conference unbeaten streak in Friday’s MAC showdown.
St. Henry – You could almost sense it – the kind of game that happens in February.
It was Versailles, 16-2 and unbeaten in the MAC, versus St. Henry, 15-3 with one loss in the MAC, in something resembling a Texas death match to determine if there would, in fact, be an outright winner of the conference crown…at least for another week.
You might even make the case that it was St. Henry’s ‘last stand’, given that you can’t take for granted that someone else can, or will, do what you don’t do for yourself. And they couldn’t afford to lose!
So before the biggest home crowd in recent memory at St. Henry – on a night when the 1990-’91 state champion Redskins teams were honored at halftime – the current ‘Skins did some skinnin’ of their own. A last-second shot by senior Curtis Uhlenhake took down the 5th-ranked Tigers to hand them their first league loss, and second loss in five days, 46-44.
“Just a backdoor play to the basket,” said Uhlenhake, who wears a mask to protect a broken nose, paying credit to everyone else on the floor at the time besides himself. “Credit to my teammates for settin’ me up.”
A play that broke a 44-44 deadlock as a result of some missed free throws on both ends (that happens in February, too), and one that St. Henry coach Eric Rosenbeck resurrected from the annals of basketball.
“It was the play that Princeton used to knock off UCLA back in the 90s,” he answered in the post-game locker room. “Justin Ahrens is really good at going for steals and we used his aggressiveness against him. Curtis had a fantastic finish on the play to give us one last lead…and then we had a fantastic stop on the other end.”
It was a game that saw St. Henry come out hot as a ‘match’, taking a 15-5 first quarter lead. And they led by as much as 12 points before a Versailles comeback cut the halftime deficit to just three points – 21-18, on a broken play three-pointer by St. Henry as time expired. The Redskins hit 5 of 11 first half threes (45%), but just importantly made life miserable for the league’s leading scorer, Ahrens, with a box-and-one defense that stymied Versailles, collectively, and held Ahrens, individually, to just five first half points.
Then, the second half settled into to one of the fitfully tight affairs that saw both teams go on short runs, take leads, surrender leads…and there were four ties. Versailles finally took its first lead of the game midway through the fourth on a pair of back-to-back three-pointers by Ahrens…and then a baseline lay-in by A.J. Ahrens with 3:02 left, 44-43.
The defense from both teams was intense – the tension in the packed gym was, if possible, even more intense. And for a period of two minutes the only point scored was by St. Henry on a made free throw by Tyler Schlarman. It tied the scored with 1:02 remaining, 44-44.
St. Henry had the possession and they ran clock, then called a timeout with about 15 seconds remaining to draw up what would ultimately become the winning play. They ran it to perfection…Uhlenhake capitalizing on Ahrens’ overplay to slip through the lane, elude Ahrens and teammate Keaton McEldowney, and score on a reverse layup while screening both defenders from the ball.
The officials correctly reset the clock at 4.5 seconds to play during a Versailles timeout; but St. Henry’s defense again made it tough on the Tigers to inbound the basketball, and an awkward shot from just over the time line never threatened. Rosenbeck and the Redskins had that one last stop…and the win!
Probably motivated by their unexpected loss to Celina last weekend, Rosenbeck credited not motivation, but a little ‘junk’ defense and better focus in their preparation for Friday’s titanic win.
“I think we caught ’em off guard a little bit with what we call a ‘fist-n-one’,” he said. “It’s our version of a box-and-one. Then we rushed some shots in the second quarter, they got back into the flow of the game, and then it was important for us to re-establish the lead early in the third quarter. I don’t know if anything from the Celina game helped us tonight, but if it did I guess we’ll take that loss. But we talked all week about focus, and establishing our defense early, about being aggressive. And when we’re focused we’re tough to beat. We were able to do that in the first half, and then make enough plays in the second half to secure the win.”
And as much as focus, defense, and just enough offense…the crowd and the atmosphere was engaged to the point of being just short of deafening.
“The atmosphere was fantastic,” Rosenbeck added, appreciative of all the noise and uproar. “The fans were great, the student section was great. It was high school basketball from the way people remember it from the 70s and 80s.”
St. Henry did what Minster and others had not been able to do in head-to-head confrontation with Versailles – secure for at least now a chance for a share of the conference lead. They did that while shooting 43% from the floor…and holding Ahrens and Versailles to 39% shooting.
St. Henry connected on 6 of 17 attempts from three-point range (35%). Versailles, contrary to their success on Monday against Vandalia Butler, suffered from behind the arc, hitting just 3 of 17 (17%).
Both teams finished with 67% shooting from the foul line.
For St. Henry – Tyler Schlarman had 16 points, Devin Huelskamp had 10, Uhlenhake had 8, Ryan Luttmer and Zach Niekamp had 6 each, and Ryan Bruening finished with 2.
For Versailles – A.J. Ahrens had a game-high 17 points, while Justin Ahrens finished with 14, Carter May had 5… and Keaton McEldowney and Kyle Jones had 4 points each.
A disappointed Travis Swank took a long time before emerging from the Versailles locker room to talk with media.
“Credit to what St. Henry did with their box-and-one in the first half,” Swank said, shaking his head. “But we were very stagnant on offense and we settled for too many ‘threes’ when they weren’t good ‘threes’. The second half we moved better, cut harder, and got more open looks. But it was a learning experience and that’s what we talked about in there (the locker room). We’re struggling in close games right now.”
And in fact, Versailles’ three losses have come in overtime, double-overtime, and with Friday’s two-point loss.
Now tied with one league loss apiece, there’s still work to be done for both teams.
St. Henry, in winning, improved to 16-3 overall, and 6-1 in league play. But they’re not done. The ‘Skins still have Parkway on the road, and New Bremen at home to finish the year.
Versailles, in losing, drops to 16-3, and 6-1 in league play…but the Tigers still have a date with dangerous Marion Local on the 12th, who beat Delphos St. John Friday to remain UNBEATEN in league play, and now stands 13-3 overall, and 6-0 in the MAC…very much in the running. For the moment the Flyers actually LEAD the conference standings!
They say the sign of good coaching is when you can get your kids to buy in to what you’re trying to teach, and all Curtis Uhlenhake could talk about after Friday’s win was his team’s commitment to a better focus this week – and well, the fact that we mis-spelled his name in last week’s column following the Minster game.
“You left out the first ‘h’ in Uhlenhake,” he advised me before the game.
“I copied the spelling from the game program,” I said, using that as an alibi.
“No, it’s spelled correctly in the program,” he countered.
“I used the Minster program,” I confessed.
“Oh, well there is another ‘h’,” he said. “Just in case.”
And son of a gun…if he didn’t go out and make that case, scoring the winning bucket in the most exciting game of the year. This one’s for you, Curtis…and for the crowd…and probably, a little bit for Celina, if they had anything to do with it.
It was…St. Henry’s last stand!