Franklin girls basketball coach Tony Kathrens and his Sabers threw everything but the kitchen sink at their powerful second-ranked in state rivals from Oak Creek Friday night.
Triangle and two, 2-2-1, 2-1-2 and even a little man defense. A Princeton-style offense and even the most unheard of thing of all, a willingness to play a slower game with longer possessions.
And it worked for a long time. Foul trouble on the taller, longer Knights bogged their offense down to a sloggy standstill and the Sabers took advantage to close the gap to 21-20 at the half.
But as Oak Creek senior point guard Morgan Kokta noted, coach Steve Hluchnik wanted the Knights to play smarter, but to remain aggressive.
"He really wanted us to get our act together," she said. "We needed to stay aggressive and make smart passes and still go to the basket hard."
One person who obeyed that mantra to the fullest was 6-2 junior forward Tamya Sims, who was one of three Knights to finish the first half with two fouls each.
Sims seemed to be everywhere in the moments after the Sabers tied the score at 37-all with 5:51 to go on a baseline drive by Cassidy Milhako. She would score nine of the next 10 points for the Knights, as they pulled away for a crucial 51-43 decision over their Southeast Conference rivals.
It was the Knights' second win over the Sabers this season.
"They just told me to be smart on defense, be a little cautious, watch my passes and above all, to shoot when I was open," Sims said.
And because she did that often enough, Oak Creek is now two games up on Franklin in the league race with a 9-0 mark (15-1 overall) while the Sabers fell to 7-2 and 11-4, respectively.
"She seems to play better in big games," said Hluchnik of Sims. "When we were in trouble in the King game (last week), she just took over. She just wants the ball when it's crunch time and to her credit, she produces."
Sims did not finish as the leading scorer for the Knights, as that honor belonged to Kokta with 16 points, but Sims' 12 points were invaluable for their timing.
And Kathrens, whose Sabers' did everything in their power to try and negate the height advantage the Knights had, could only tip his hat in the end.
"You have to understand that there's a reason why they're ranked number two in the state and number one in the area," said Kathrens. "They have size and they use it to the 'nth' degree. They utilize their posts in so many different ways, it really makes it difficult."
"And you have to credit Sims. She did a lot of great things for them down the stretch."
Such as getting a clutch putback that made it 40-37 Oak Creek with 4:37 to go, or when with the score now 40-39, she hit two free throws at the 2:57 mark to make it 42-39.
She got help from her fellow 6-2 junior post Steph Kostowicz, who dove to the floor and got a clutch rebound and then had the presence of mind to call a timeout with 2:24 remaining to prevent a tie-up.
"Steph didn't have a smart first half," said Hluchnik. "More turnovers than points, which is never a good thing. She got a little bit of a chewing out for that, but to her credit I don't think she made a mistake in the second half."
Following that timeout, Kostowicz made a deft over-the-shoulder pass to Sims for an easy lay-up to make it 44-39 with 1:44 left.
And after Mihalko's baseline lay-up skittered off the side of the rim, Sims put the game away moments later, breaking free for an easy lay-up off an in-bounds pass to make the margin 46-39 with 1:02 to go.
"In the first half our guards were way too wide," said Hluchnik, "but in the second half, we concentrated on getting more inside looks. The first half was tough though. We had that foul trouble but we had to keep at least of them (either Sims or Kostowicz) in all the time but they were smart enough to avoid more (foul) trouble."
Kathrens lamented the Sabers inability to take advantage of the foul situation in the first half. They were only two of 12 from the field in the first quarter and four of 16 in the second. Further, they were only five of 11 from the foul line for the game (as opposed to 12 of 16 for Oak Creek).
"We did a lot of things right tonight," he said. "We started the freshman (forward Carly Graverson) because she's our second-leading rebounder and our main theme tonight was to drive up the foul count on them. We were hell-bent on attacking, but we just didn't hit enough shots."
"It's rare to see Cassidy have the kind of game she had (12 points), but it just didn't happen for her tonight."
Part of the reason was Oak Creek's flexible posts, as Hluchnik frequently put Kostowicz on her, even out on the wing. Because of that attention, Mihalko's slashing drives to the hoop just weren't as easy to come by tonight.
"A lot of it is about courage and belief for us," said Kathrens. "We have to believe we can do it. We'll work hard down the stretch and see what we can get done yet."
Katie Nord was the only other Saber in double figures with 10.
Meanwhile, Kokta and Sims got help from Kostowicz with 10 and Hannah Settingsgaard with eight.
Oak Creek has now won 15 games in a row since an opening game loss to Pius XI and the Knights don't want to slow down now.
"We're two-up with five games to go in conference," said Hluchnik. "I like where we are. We had pretty lofty goals going into the season. We thought we had a pretty good chance of winning conference and we were looking to earn the number one seed (in the WIAA sectional). We have a pretty good shot at attaining both those things if we keep going in this direction."
But his players are also working hard at staying grounded.
"We know that however good things are going, we can't ever start to think that we're better than we really are," said Kokta.
"We definitely know we have a target on our backs," said Sims.
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