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Redbirds fend off rival Cubans
Darlington freshman Carter Lancaster makes a shot while getting fouled in the first half of a 71-65 rivalry game win over Cuba City on Jan. 30. Lancaster scored 16 points. (Times photo: Adam Krebs)
DARLINGTON - Rivalries games add an extra spark to each game. Bragging rights, pride, the chance to better position yourself in the standings or spoil the opponent - these are all additional features to an otherwise regular game.

And sometimes, the thirst to avenge a previous loss fuels some extra fire, such was the case when Cuba City showed up in Darlington Tuesday.

"They got us by quite a bit over at their place, so we knew we had to come into this one with a chip on our shoulder," Redbird junior Stryker Fitzsimons said after the Redbird's 71-65 win.

Cuba City (9-6, 5-3 SWAL), coached by Wisconsin's all-time winningest coach Jerry Petitgoue, brings plenty to the table - good coaching, an outside game, defense and the ability to get to the free throw line.

"It's always interesting because they can switch a lot of things up, like their offense," Darlington's Tanner Evenstad said. "It always seems like every time we play Cuba City it's going to be a close game and a battle to the end."

The Cubans noticed early on that getting to the rim would be difficult and the outside shot wasn't falling. So instead of slowing down the pace, they sped up their game and forced the Redbirds (10-5, 6-3) into nine fouls and the Cubans went to the line for 14 free throw attempts, making 12.

"It was one thing we wanted to address, because in our first game against them they were 20 of 25 from the free throw line and we were 5 of 9," Darlington coach Tom Uppena said. "That was a huge disparity. So, we wanted to play good position defense to keep them from getting those fouls called, but it didn't really work out that way."

Darlington led 34-27 at halftime after leading by as many as nine in the first frame.

In the second half, the Cuban's found their stroke.

"We just needed to play our game and get to the hoop and draw some fouls," Fitzsimons said. "I thought we all played a really good game."

Cuba City outpaced Darlington 9-2 over the first 3½ minutes of the second half to tie the game at 36. Redbird freshman Carter Lancaster then converted an old-fashioned three-point play to give his team a 3-point lead again. That sparked a 14-3 run by the Redbirds that gave Darlington its biggest lead of the night at 11 points, 50-39 with just over 10 minutes to play.

"It's a game of runs and we just had to find our run," Evenstad said. "They kept telling us from the bench that we have to keep the intensity up."

The Cubans had no quit though, busting out an 18-6 run to take their first lead of the game at 55-54 with 7:09 left after Jackson Noll drilled a 3-pointer. That forced Uppena to call a timeout in an attempt to right the ship for Darlington.

"I told them just to keep their composure," Uppena said. "It's a long game. It has its ups and downs and at that point we were going through a down and we needed to collect ourselves, remember what we were doing offensively and take it one possession at a time."

The two teams traded the next few baskets, with Lancaster scoring six points in an eight-point stretch. Evenstad fed a pair of assists to Lancaster in the run and hit a baseline jumper of his own as Darlington re-took the lead at 62-60 with just 3:53 remaining.

"The difference between winning and losing was we had guys ready to step up and make those plays in the paint," Uppena said. "All the guys played well, but those guys stepped up and scored when we needed a bucket."

A pair of Cuban baskets again had the Redbirds on their heels, but then Stryker Fitzsimons got in on the action, scoring back-to-back baskets in the paint, including one with just 58 seconds remaining to make it 66-64.

"I saw the defense shift and I knew I could take my guy from the high post so I gave him a little jab and went baseline. I kind of got underneath the rim, but I managed to finish it," Fitzsimons said.

Cuba City's Brady Olson still found his way to the free throw line, knocking down the front half of a double bonus. Uppena called another timeout and iced Cuba City's sophomore sniper. From there Darlington hit its final six free throws - with Evenstad making four and Fitzsimons two.

"It's huge, but at the same time you've got to know that they are regular free throws and you have to sink them for your team and put the game away," Evenstad said.

Fitzsimons said he's been preparing for the moment his entire life.

"I practiced that as a kid in the driveway. I would actually go out there and be like, 'Cuba City, 5-4-3-2-1,'" Fitzsimons said. "It was awesome to be up there cool, calm and collected."

Fitzsimons led Darlington with 19 points, Lancaster had 16 and Evenstad 13.

Olson led Cuba City with 22, Noll had 12 and Blake Robson added 11. The Cubans were 24 of 31 from the free throw line, while the Redbirds were 13 of 15.

With the win, Darlington stands third in the SWAL, one game behind Fennimore (14-2, 7-2), which lost to first-place Mineral Point (12-4, 8-1) Tuesday. Cuba City drops a half-game behind Darlington. The Redbirds return to action Friday at Riverdale (0-13, 0-8).

"We've got to take it one game at a time. But this game was a big one for us because, maybe we don't win conference, but we possibly finish in second or third. We stay in that mix and it's going to help us out in seedings for the tournament," Uppena said. "This was a big win that we really needed to get for down the road."