FINDLAY - It was the best of times and the worst of times for the two Toledo Area Athletic Conference teams who traveled south last night to face two ominous foes in the Division IV boys district basketball semifinals at Liberty-Benton High School.
Although it turned out that Cardinal Stritch was extremely overmatched in the opener, losing 63-24 to Putnam County League-champion Continental, Toledo Christian carried the TAAC banner with pride in a 55-46 upset of seventh-ranked Blanchard Valley Conference-champion Van Buren.
"This is the biggest win in our history by far," fourth-year Eagles coach Dave McWhinnie said. "Without a doubt. Van Buren's a great team. I'm so proud our team could knock off a team as great as they are.
"We're one of the few teams that's as quick as Van Buren. We had quickness and hustle, we played great defense, and we rebounded the ball well."
The victorious Eagles (16-6) - who opened their season in style with a 41-32 upset of defending D-IV state champion Holgate back on Nov. 26 - will face 11th-ranked Continental (19-3) for the district championship here Friday at 7 p.m.
"We've played a lot of state-ranked teams and we've played five teams from this league [BVC]," McWhinnie said. "We've only won a couple of them, but we've played good, tough competition.
"I took it from Holgate. I know they play the toughest schedule every year, and I just wanted to keep ramping up our schedule and playing tougher teams, because it prepares you for a night like tonight."
The Eagles grabbed the lead 16-14 on two Blake Powell free throws 1:33 into the second quarter, bumped it to 31-23 by halftime, then played well enough to hang on as the 19-3 Black Knights tried to rally.
Van Buren did pull within 43-37 late in the third quarter and - after Toledo Christian pushed the lead back to 51-41 on four straight free throws from Tyler Boris - began launching 3-pointers in an effort to close the gap.
But the ice-cold Knights hit just three of their 23 fourth-quarter shots from the field, including 1 of 14 3-point attempts.
Meanwhile, the Eagles were able to ice things at the line, hitting 6 of 11 in the final period after making 13 of 14 in the first three quarters.
Forward Kyle Bensch paced the Eagles with 14 points. Boris and forward Sam Heisman added 10 apiece for Toledo Christian, which was 17-of-37 from the field and 19-of-25 from the line.
Van Buren shot a woeful 15-of-56 from the field, including 7-of-33 from 3-point range. The Knights were 9-of-11 from the line, outrebounded the Eagles 31-29 and matched Toledo Christian's 14 turnovers.
All-district guard Marty Baird topped Van Buren with 20 points and Aaron Hauman added 11.
In the first semifinal, Stritch held one lead in the game, 2-0, on Eric McCloskey's layup 1:07 into the first quarter.
But that edge was shortlived as Pirate guard Scott Keck answered with a 3-pointer 15 seconds later. By quarter's end, the Pirates had an 18-8 lead, pushing it to 37-18 at halftime by closing the second quarter with a 15-4 run.
That was the better half for Stritch, which managed to hit just three of 21 second-half shots, going 0-for-13 in the fourth quarter while being shut out for the game's final 8:25.
"It snowballed," Stritch coach Jim Sheehy said. "They're a very good team. I give them a lot of credit. I think we're a good basketball team and, obviously, it wasn't even close.
"We gave up 21 offensive rebounds, which is pretty much inexcusable. They worked hard. They jump all over the basketball. They're a very active defensive team."
Continental guard Kurtis Brown, the D-IV district co-player of the year, shared game scoring honors with forward teammate Nick Wilson at 17 points apiece.
Sophomore guard Michael Ameling led the 13-10 Cards with eight points.
"We talked about passing lanes," Sheehy said of his team's offensive approach. "We ran our plays and we were looking for backcuts and we didn't get 'em at all."