"Hey, tell Dan I told him thanks!" laughed Oak Creek girls basketball coach Steve Hluchnik as he prepared to join his team for the ride home from Brookfield Central Friday night.
Hluchnik was laughing loudly at that moment, because his rebuilding Knights had just pulled off a major upset in Central's 23-team Thanksgiving Shootout as guard Morgan Kokta hit two free throws with just .9 of a second remaining to lift Oak Creek to a 37-35 victory over De Pere, which had been ranked number one in state division I pre-season polls.
Hluchnik's opening rejoinder was in sharp contrast a few weeks earlier, when he learned that his old pal Lancer coach Dan Wandrey had paired his thinner than usual team against the powerful Redbirds in this season-opening tournament.
"I think I said 'Thanks for nothing,' at the time," said Hluchnik with a big grin.
But despite being without graduated all-state center and UW-Green Bay recruit Ashley Luke and veteran point guard Cydney Weisflog, the Knights showed little sign of nerve as they gained some powerful momentum entering the 2011-12 camapign.
"That's a very good team out there, but we went toe-to-toe and blow-for-blow with them," Hluchnik said. "I told the kids that there would be first game ups and downs. We didn't have too many lulls until that fourth quarter."
"That's when we started shaking in our boots."
Yes, they did a little bit. The game had gone back-and-forth all night, as the Knights used a sturdy half-court man defense and an occasional 1-3-1 trap to keep the more physical and experienced Redbirds at bay.
De Pere's biggest lead of 9-4 came in the in the first quarter, but the Knights got two free throws from Kokta with six seconds remaining to go up 16-15 at the half-time break.
The lead changed hands four times in the third quarter with the Knights getting a jumper from the key from Katie Finn to go up 28-27 heading into the fourth quarter.
But as Hluchnik alluded too, that's when Oak Creek started getting nervous.
The Knights committed six turnovers in the fourth quarter, as De Pere scored the first four points of the session to go up 31-28. Kokta, who would go seven of eight from the foul line on the game, finally hit two charity tosses with 3:33 remaining to make it 31-30.
But after De Pere's Alayna Cotter hit two free throws with 1:14 remaining, it was still 33-30 Redbirds, and the Knights still didn't have a basket in the quarter.
However, because the Redbirds missed 12 of their first 13 shots in the fourth, Oak Creek still had a pulse.
Into the fray stepped Oak Creek sophomore post Tamya Sims (12 points), junior guard Kokta and senior guard Abby Styczynski. Hluchnik would win or lose this game with three sophomores in the line-up for the stretch run.
After an Oak Creek time-out, the slim and athletic Sims drove the right side of the wing towards the basket. As expected, she drew the double-team but then she deftly tossed the ball out to Styczynski, who was calmly perched on the right base-line behind the three-point arc.
Styczynski wasted no time coolly draining a three-pointer to tie the score with 55 seconds left.
"We needed something to stay in the game," said Sims. "It was so exciting when that went in."
It was to get even more exciting moments later, as Sims stole the ball at mid-court and raced in for a lay-up with 43 seconds remaining to give Oak Creek its first lead in six minutes at 35-33.
But the Redbirds weren't done yet, as after a time-out, they ran the clock and got the ball into forward Emma Konopasek (game-high 15 points) who swished a shot from the short wing area to tie the score with nine seconds remaining.
The Knights' decisive play was pretty simple as they left the ball in Kokta's hands. She had inherited the point position from Weisflog and drove the ball up the middle of the court against intense defensive pressure.
She got to the lane, spun for a lay-up and was hit as she went up.
Just 0.9 of a second remained.
"I really don't know how to explain how I felt when I went up there (to the foul line)," said Kokta. "Free throws have been a bit of a problem in the past for me, but I have gotten better."
Indeed, as both tosses found nothing but net. De Pere's desperation buzzer heave was nowhere near the basket.
For Hluchnik, whose team lost to eventual state champion Nicolet in its season opener last season, the victory was sweet validation for the program.
"I though our conditioning really paid off tonight," he said. "We played 10 kids and even if they were in just for a minute, they were giving us a minute from hell. We got everything that we could have from the kids."
"I think they really grew up."
Hluchnik praised everyone from the young to the old in his line-up as Styczynski added eight while Kokta had nine.
"The conference season is going to be tough and this will help," said Hluchnik. "This was a good test tonight and we passed it."
"We knew what we were facing and had prepared hard all week," said Kokta. "We knew what we were up against and still got it done."
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