Tuesday night hurt, there was no getting past that for the Oak Creek boys basketball team.
They had unbeaten in the Southeast Conference Racine Case on the ropes for what coach Mike Jossie called about "30-plus minutes" and then let the game slip away in the last 1:30 with some uncharacteristic mistakes in a 41-40 defeat.
"It was a real heartbreaker," said Jossie. "There were tears shed in the lockerroom after that game. We played so well, so disciplined for more than 30 minutes and even had an eight-point lead at one time in the second half, but we made mistakes and Case, to its credit, made us pay for those mistakes."
And that loss had been right on top of a difficult defeat to archrival Franklin just a few days before.
So Jossie needed to see if the resurgent Knights, who have played suffocating defense and smart, patient offense all this encouraging season en route to a 6-5 league mark and a 10-9 overall record, "could find their heart and passion again."
The answer Friday night against Southeast Conference foe Kenosha Bradford was a resounding "Yes!"
The Knights had all-around best player senior forward Terrence Garner on the bench for all but about two minutes in the first half with two fouls and would eventually have similar problems with such starters as Alex Medenwalt and Chase Leonardi, both of whom eventually would foul out in the fourth quarter.
But a series of reserves, led by post Nick Comella (six rebounds) and guard Cory Jackson held the Oak Creek pulse steady and allowed the Knights to eventually pull away with a 41-33 victory.
"We had those tough losses but we had to put them behind us," said the 6-4 Garner, "and our bench really stepped up for us tonight." Garner would wind up with eight points and six rebounds, almost all of which came in the second half.
"It was funny, we haven't had foul trouble all season until tonight," said Jossie, "but if we were to get this done, the reserves would have to step up. They didn't score a lot of points, but they played a lot of strong minutes and they were the ones who pulled us through to the end.
Despite the loss of Garner and other foul trouble Oak Creek still held a 17-14 lead.
Two free throws and a steal and lay-up by Medenwalt put the Knights up for good and were part of an 8-0 run that made it 15-8 with 6:06 left in the half.
The offense went a bit stagnant the rest of the half, but Oak Creek still kept the advantage.
When Garner came back in for good (he not pick up another foul in the second half), the Knights went on a 6-0 run to start the third. Garner got the first basket, and then junior point guard Cordarius Johnson hit a pair of tough shots in quick succession to make it 23-14, with 5:20 left in the third.
After that, the game became a little bit of a cat-and-mouse affair, as twice in the third quarter, the Red Devils would close the gap to five, only to have the Knights push it back up.
But Oak Creek all but put a dagger in Bradford's hopes right at the end of the third, as the Knights ran almost all of the last 36 seconds off the clock and then kicked it to freshman guard Harrison Cleary on the far left baseline, who drained a cold-as-the-weather 3-pointer just as the buzzer sounded to make it 30-20.
"When we got Terrence back in and he became active, that opened up other things for us," said Jossie.
In the fourth quarter, the Knight lead would twice drop to within eight, but the Red Devils could not heat up hitting only nine of 37 shots on the evening.
"We just tried not to do too much," said Garner. "We just do what we do best and not force things."
Johnson continued his steady play with eight points and five assists while Medenwaldt had seven points before he fouled out.
Montenia Nelson had 15 points for Bradford to lead all scorers.
"We knew it wouldn't be easy," said Jossie. "Give Bradford credit. We just do a nice job of holding teams down. Some people say we're overly patient and boring, but I tell you, winning is exciting for our guys."
"We just had to come back (from those two tough losses)," he said. "... and yes, it is more enjoyable winning games."
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