This one was for the seniors.
New Berlin Eisenhower girls basketball team beat Pius XI, 51-44, on Saturday to win the WIAA Sectional Championship at Brookfield Central and advance to state for the second year in a row.
The Lions (24-2) will play at a different venue - the girls tournament was moved to the Resch Center in Green Bay this year. They will meet New London (26-0) in a rematch of last year's state championship game in which the Bulldogs won, 43-39. They have compiled a 54-0 record the past two seasons.
Eisenhower coach Gary Schmidt said right from the beginning that this game was for the seniors.
"We talked in the locker room before we came out here," the veteran coach said. "The seniors have one last chance to go to state. This is it. There ain't going to be a next year for them.
"So we really made it important to the whole team. If we want to go to state, we have to do it now. We have to seize the moment. This was the moment in time. We've got to go out and grasp it and take it."
The Lady Popes had their last lead at 20-18 on a 3-pointer by senior captain Aaliyah Ramirez with 4 minutes, 57 seconds left in the second quarter. Two free throws by senior Jenny Weiland and a 3-pointer by Sammy Kozlowski gave Ike a 23-20 lead, but a 3-point play by Vivivca Nwagbaroacha tied the game with 2:11 left in the half.
A rebound basket by 6-foot-2-inch freshman Chelsea Brackmann followed by Brackmann's layup off a beautiful pass from Weiland gave Eisenhower a 27-23 lead at intermission, and they never trailed again.
Weiland knew how important the game was and was pleased with the start.
"It was a huge game, so we had to come out with everything we had," she said. "This could be our last game so we put everything out on the court and gave a 100 percent."
Playing hard throughout
Her coach was also pleased.
"I liked the way we started," Schmidt said. "It was a heck of a game. Both teams played hard to the very end."
The Lions led 29-27 when they went on a 7-0 run with 6:19 left in the third quarter. Weiland scored on a drive, senior Erin Ganzke hit two free throws and senior Katie Lang nailed a long 3 to give the Lions a 36-27 advantage with 4:38 left in the third quarter.
Ramirez hit two free throws and Ashley Petrof nailed a 3 and scored on a drive to cut the lead to 36-34. But the Lions answered again. Kozlowski scored on a jump hook shot, then Weiland stole the ball at halfcourt and scored for a 40-34 lead.
Lang opened the fourth quarter with a layup off a nice pass from Jessa Hahn, but then a rebound basket by Nwagbaroacha at the 5:30 mark was the only basket Pius scored until Katie Gardner hit a 3 with 1:46 left to play.
Perhaps the key defensive play came with Eisenhower leading 47-44 with 27.7 seconds left, when Pius drove the lane and Kozlowski timed it perfectly and stole the ball.
"I saw her drive. I knew she was trying to get to the hoop, so I took a chance and I tried to steal the ball," she said. "I thought they were going to call a foul, but I got it clean, and we got it off."
Ganzke closed out the scoring by sandwiching four free throws around two by Weiland.
Ganzke led all scorers with 12 points, while Lang and Kozlowski had 10 each and Weiland finished with nine. Ramirez and Pitrof each had 11 for the Lady Popes.
"Overall, as a team, we're better," Lang said. "We pass more. We look into the post more. Our defense has improved tremendously. That's where we need to be this late in the season."
Then she thought about the future - this next week and down the road.
"It hasn't even sunken in yet," she said. "It's probably the last year I'm ever going to play basketball, so it means so much to be out here with this team and to get another week of practice."
As players, coaches, students and family celebrated on the court afterwards,Schmidt couldn't stop talking about his seniors.
"I'm very happy for my seniors. They've been very fortunate. They've been up there before. But like I said, it never gets old. This was their team now. This is what they did since fifth grade. They've earned it and I couldn't be more happy for them.
"This group of seniors has really, really worked hard. … They gritted it out. Our seniors had great games tonight. I'm estatic."
Ganzke was specially happy, since she suffered a concussion at the end of the first half in last year's championship game and never got back in the game.
"I want to finish what I didn't get to finish last year," she said.
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