The Burlington Central boys basketball players flashed ear-to-ear grins Saturday night as they donned commemorative T-shirts and hats emblazoned with a phrase the program has waited four years to proclaim: Plano Christmas Classic champions.
Their smiles were forged half from joy, half from relief after out-grinding the grind-it-out offense of Peoria Notre Dame 44-39 in overtime.
Following losses in the semifinals the last three years, the Rockets broke through to the finals on Friday, setting the stage for their first tournament title at Plano since 1969. Central (10-2) entered the tournament as the top seed.
"It feels amazing," said tournament MVP Zach Schutta, who was named all-tournament for the fourth consecutive season. "Losing in the semifinals three years in a row was pretty disappointing. Getting through the semifinals was an unbelievable feeling and actually winning the championship was awesome."
Said Central senior Michael Kalusa, who finished with 11 points and 3 steals: "After being stuck in the semifinals for three years, it's finally great to prove to everyone that we're the true one seed."
Schutta scored 12 points, including the go-ahead bonus free throws with 2:36 left in overtime, and all-tournament pick Patrick Mayfield contributed 12 points to lead the Rockets.
Peoria Notre Dame (7-7) tried to wear down the Central defense by working the offense for 45 seconds at a time before finding a shot the Irish liked. It worked to a large degree. Notre Dame led 21-18 at the half and 27-24 heading to the fourth quarter, partly because the deliberate approach limited the Rockets to 27 shot attempts through the first three quarters.
Schutta provided 4 points in an 8-2 run to open the final period and the lead flipped three times down the stretch until Notre Dame freshman Noah Reynolds tied it at 37-37 on a drive with 25 seconds left in regulation.
Central couldn't sink a game winner and a desperation heave by the Irish at the buzzer went for naught.
Early in overtime Schutta was fouled on an entry pass and hit both ends of the bonus to give the Rockets the lead for good. Following an Irish miss, sophomore Jake Lenschow contributed 2 of his 8 points on a putback to make it a 41-37 lead with 2:10 to play.
Desjani Beamon's 2 free throws with 43.3 left staked the Rockets to a 43-39 lead and Kalusa all but sealed the game at the other end by picking off a Notre Dame pass in the lane.
"This group really showed how mentally tough they are," Central coach Brett Porto said. "Peoria Notre Dame plays such a grind-it-out style. They're really good controlling tempo. I thought at times we let it get to us, but we didn't let it fold us. We kept fighting back, fighting back."