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Cubans take rubber match, regional title
Times photo: Mark Nesbitt Darlington junior Alex Erickson looks to drive to the basket against Cuba City senior Wells Kaiser Saturday.
MONROE - The rubber match between Darlington and Cuba City in a WIAA Division 3 regional title game was winner take all.

Cuba City rolled to a 74-59 win over Darlington Saturday in front of a packed crowd of more than 2,100 fans at Monroe High School.

Cuba City, ranked second in the Division 3 Associated Press state poll, has knocked the Redbirds out of the tournament in the regional championship in two of the last three years.

"I'm good friends with Jerry (Petitgoue), who is the winnigest coach in boys basketball history," Redbirds head coach Mike Hopkins said. "It wears on you. My analogy would be when the Green Bay Packers had to beat the Dallas Cowboys. Cuba is kind of the equivalent."

Darlington junior Alex Erickson single handily tried to keep the fifth-ranked Redbirds in striking distance as he scored 18 of his 27 points in the second half.

"We came out and played our hearts out," Erickson said. "It was a great season. We are a good team. Cuba is just better tonight. You have to give Cuba a lot of credit. They are a heck of a team. They played a heck of a ballgame."

The Cubans (24-1) stormed out to a 20-8 first quarter lead. Derek Tranel hit a jumper after a spin dribble to give the Cubans a 10-4 lead. Evan Richard later threw an alley-oop pass to senior Wells Kaiser who scored on a layup at the rim to give the Cubans a 14-6 lead with 2 minutes, 8 seconds to go in the period.

Cuba City's Brandon Stecklein scored a team-high 17 points and was one of five Cubans in double figures. Stecklein had three offensive rebounds in the first quarter as Cuba City pounded Darlington on the glass. With the loss, the Redbirds finish the season 21-4.

"It was great to get a rubber match," said Jason Boll, a Darlington senior who scored eight points. "They out-ran us. They deserve this."

Erickson drilled his first jumper with 5:31 left in the second quarter that cut the Cubans' lead to 20-15. Cuba City senior Justin Alt, who scored 10 first-half points off the bench, drained a 3-pointer midway through the period that gave the Cubans a 26-15 lead. Erickson buried a clutch 3 to slice the Cubans' lead to 28-20 late in the period. Alt answered with his second 3 to extend the lead to 31-20. Erickson scored on a layup with 2.9 seconds left in the second that trimmed the Cubans' halftime lead to 35-24.

"We were getting beat on the rebounds and loose balls," Hopkins said. "Teams don't usually do that to us. I don't know what to say. They out-hustled us in that aspect of the game."

Richard, a UW-Milwaukee recruit, scored only three points in the first half. It was the Cubans supporting cast and inside game that took a toll on the Redbirds.

"Other people stepped up," Hopkins said of the Cubans. "That's why it's a team game."

Darlington junior Tucker Wiegel opened the third quarter by drilling a 3-pointer that sliced the lead to 37-27. That's as close as the Redbirds would get. The Cubans proved to be lethal in transition in the second half with a 16-7 spurt. Richard, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, scored off an offensive rebound and putback to give the Cubans a 43-27 lead with 5:49 left in the third quarter. Stecklein scored down low late in the third quarter to give the Cubans their largest lead at 51-31.

"We hung in there," Hopkins said. "We kept fighting. We just couldn't get enough defensive stops. If we could have hit some shots and got it under nine points, who knows."

Senior Tanner Havens was a sophomore on the Darlington team that lost to Cuba City in the regional final in 2008. Havens said the Redbirds played hard, but just couldn't get into a flow. Havens and Wiegel each had six points.

"I knew from that time I wanted to get back to the regional final and go further," Havens said. "We played as hard as we could for as long as we could. It just wasn't good enough."

Boll said the most memorable moments of the season for him are winning 21 games, playing in the regional championship game and beating Cuba City in the season finale to earn a share of the SWAL title.

"The season just went so fast," Boll said. "Sharing the conference title, I will never forget. I will remember it for the rest of my life."