Muskego — Ron Kluth may not get his job back as Franklin girls basketball coach - that matter is in the hands of school officials - but he at least knows that his lessons have been taught well.
Kluth was among those in attendance March 17 in Burlington, as the Sabers turned in an inspired and focused effort in defeating rival Muskego, 62-50, in a WIAA sectional semifinal. It was the first win in three tries for the Sabers over the Warriors this winter.
Kluth had been asked to resign in January following an arrest for DUI on Dec. 27. Many people in Franklin feel that the decision is unfair considering all his good work, while others want to move on with a new coach. Officials in the district will take up the matter at a later date.
"We had even more motivation tonight, because we heard that (Kluth) would be here," Franklin senior forward Taylor Atkinson said. "It meant so much to us to have him present here. We just tried to show that we could still execute and play the way that he taught us."
Interim coach Guy Balistreri has been a long-time assistant to Kluth and politely declined comment on the matter of his reinstatement. He just wanted to focus on the impassioned effort of the team, which never trailed and was tied only three times.
"We've been working so hard on our defense the last two weeks," he said, "and the kids performed it to perfection."
Franklin (17-8) eventually beat Janesville Craig for the WIAA sectional title while Muskego finished at 18-6.
For Warriors coach Brian Hirtz, it was a stunning turn of events.
"We ran into an absolute buzz saw," he said. "Franklin was a pretty inspired team this week. They were the more aggressive team by far and that really caught us off-guard. They never had a letdown. They were just tough and fast."
Taking and holding lead
That they were, because after sophomore guard Jenny Eickhorst (13 points) nailed a baseline three-pointer with 4:01 left in the first quarter to make it 9-6, the Sabers would never trail again.
That bomb launched a 10-3 run that put Franklin ahead 16-9 with 1:47 left in the quarter. Sophomore guard Cassidy Mihalko had eight of her game-high 16 points for the Sabers in the stanza, even though the Warriors did succeed in cutting the deficit to 16-13 at period's end on hoops by Jessica Mlachnik and Amber McDonald.
But employing a combination of a 2-1-2 zone and a box-and-one, the Sabers made sure that Muskego star Alyssa Colla never got going. The senior, who averages over 17 points a game, was held scoreless over the first three periods and finished with only eight points.
Behind that defensive effort, the Sabers forced the Warriors into 14 first-half turnovers and held them to only four second quarter points in expanding the margin to 28-17 at the break.
"We were actually prepared for them to play a lot of zone," said Hirtz, "but we just had way too many and uncharacteristic turnovers."
Franklin scored the last six points of the half, including a fast-break hoop by Mariah Hill.
The advantage went to 13 on a pair of Atkinson free throws early in the third period. The Sabers would hit only two of 11 shots from the field in the period, but because of the defense (Muskego was a combined four of 26 from the field in the second and third quarters), it was still 34-24 going into the final stanza.
Pressured, but not enough
But behind its trademark full-court pressure, the Warriors made a game of it, as Colla finally broke through on a three-point play and Mlachnik (12 points) knocked down a free throw to make it 34-28 with 7:24 to play.
Muskego kept squeezing, but the Sabers refused to crack. After the Warriors' Elissa Albert and Kaitlyn Hein downed back-to-back buckets, the deficit was cut to 37-33 with 4:05 left, but then Franklin's senior forward Jenny Coenen dropped in a three-pointer from the baseline with 3:43 remaining to bump the margin back to seven.
The Warriors answered with a putback hoop by Hein (nine points) to get it back to five, but then Eickhorst and Atkinson each notched enormous plays to all but put the game out of reach.
First, Eickhorst dropped another triple to make it a 10-point game with 2:38 left, and after an Albert free throw, Atkinson fought her to the hoop and an old-fashioned three-point play with just 2:11 left to make it 48-36.
Strong from the line
After that, all the Sabers had to do was hit their free throws, as the Warriors could get no closer than six. Franklin would hit an impressive 18 of 22 in the second half, including their final 12 in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore guard Katie Nord added seven for Franklin while Shannon Riley had nine for Muskego. Hirtz praised the play of Hein.
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