The situation looked challenging at the least for the Cedarburg boys basketball team on Jan. 13.
The Bulldogs were facing an inspired Grafton squad on its home court in front of a large, supportive crowd, and they were without their top player, all-state guard John Diener, who was out with a sprained ankle.
Cedarburg found a way, though, with other players stepping to the forefront and leading the Bulldogs to a crucial 64-58 victory that kept them on top of the North Shore Conference.
Jordan Johnson collected 30 points to pace Cedarburg, with Matt Barber adding 12 points and Clayton Van Tassel chipping in with 10 points.
"We've got some seniors, kids with a lot of experience," coach Tom Diener said. "Jared Short, Clayton Van Tassel and Jordan Johnson, those three guys have been with me for four years. When they're on the floor, I know we're going to get some quality play, and those guys really did a great job."
The victory moved Cedarburg to 6-0 in the North Shore, two full games ahead of Grafton, Whitefish Bay and Homestead, which are all 4-2 in the conference.
John Diener sprained the ankle in a Jan. 11 contest against Nicolet, which the Bulldogs won, 55-39, and coach Diener said he could be out another week or two.
In his absence, Cedarburg led for most of the game against the Black Hawks, who were hoping to move into a first-place tie in the North Shore.
The Bulldogs were up 25-13 late in the first half on a 3-point field goal by Johnson, but Grafton responded with three straight 3-pointers — two from Sam Huibregtse and one by Darrian Langerman — to come within 25-22.
Johnson made another 3-pointer to give his team a 28-22 halftime lead, but the Hawks got hot again from the perimeter at the start of the second half.
They netted another trio of 3-pointers — two by Tanner Autey and one from Logan Hilgart — to put Grafton up, 31-28.
"I called a timeout," coach Diener said. "I was disappointed because I had told them to play out on their shooters. Fortunately, we were able to rebound from that."
Barber then put in one of his own 3-pointers to tie the game at 31-31. He finished with 9 second-half points and made many other contributions along the way, earning words of praise from his coach.
"The second half, he was flawless," Diener said. "He played great defense; he passed the ball well. I don't know that we win that game without Matt in the second half. He did an outstanding job. I don't think I took him out (of the game). It was a mammoth effort by him."
Hawks grab lead
Grafton's Andy Papcke then scored back-to-back baskets, one off an assist from Justin Peters, to give the Hawks a 35-31 lead.
"Our guys got some good looks," Grafton coach Damon James said. "We challenged our guys defensively, and they got a couple of stops that fueled us and gave us momentum."
Johnson then made two huge plays to put Cedarburg back on top. First, he drove for a 3-point play to put the Bulldogs up 36-35, and later he nailed a 3-pointer, was fouled and hit the free throw for a 4-point play and 42-37 lead.
That was part of a 15-2 run that gave the Bulldogs a 46-37 advantage, and they stretched that to 57-45 on four free throws by Van Tassel and Barber.
Grafton used 3-pointers from Autey, Hilgart and Huibregtse to come within 59-54, but Cedarburg held on with more free throws.
"We're a good free-throw shooting team, and when we get in the bonus, that helps us a lot," said Diener, whose team finished 25-of-32 from the line.
By contrast, the Hawks hit just 1 of 11 free throws on the night, including 0 of 7 in the second half.
"You can't win close ballgames when you don't hit free throws," James said. "It comes down to the minor details of making those free throws. Give them credit; they have good players, but we can't kill ourselves when you have a chance to steal one at home."
Autey paced Grafton with 21 points, Hilgart added 10 and Huibregtse 9 points. The Hawks finished with 11 3-pointers on the evening.
"Our practice was good all week," James said. "The guys did a great job preparing; they were sharp and focused. There wasn't any question about that. I love the effort and preparation, but it just comes down to making some shots and executing on the defensive end."
Cedarburg will next meet Homestead at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, and then take on Whitefish Bay at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, with both games at home.
Grafton plays at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at Whitefish Bay.