With grit, tenacity and will on their side, plus a fair amount of luck, the Oak Creek girls basketball team found itself playing for a WIAA Division 1 state title after pulling off a 46-40 overtime win over No. 1-ranked Kimberly in a thrilling state semifinal at the Resch Center in Green Bay on Friday.
The Knights found themselves down 36-31 with 50 seconds to go, but when post Stephanie Kostowicz went the wrong way on an inbounds play with 2 seconds to go, she found herself wide open for an easy lay-up and the Knights found themselves in overtime at 38-all.
"I ran the play wrong, I was supposed to go the other way, but I saw an opening," said Kostowicz, who was so excited that she thought the shot was the game-winner.
In the overtime, fellow post Tamya Sims put the Knights up for good on a bank shot, and forward Katie Finn, who led Oak Creek with 16 points and eight rebounds, then hit four free throws in the final 10 seconds to clinch the victory.
"We struggled at points," said coach Steve Hluchnik, "and at times in the second half our body language was not the best, but the bottom line was that we made plays."
With the win, the third-ranked Knights (25-2) will play in their first state title game since 1983 against Superior at 8:15 p.m. Saturday back at the Resch. One of those schools will win the first gold ball in program history.
Kostowicz, who fouled out in the overtime, called the opportunity at a first state title "a perfect way for us to end the season. ... a real fairy tale ending."
But there was nothing fairy-tale about the way the Knights got there.
They grabbed a 12-4 first-quarter lead on the smaller but more physical Papermakers (26-1) and despite Kostowicz and Sims sitting out much of the second quarter with foul trouble, Oak Creek was still up 21-16 at the break. A driving lay-up from point guard Jenna Santi at the second-quarter buzzer gave the Knights their final points of the session.
But the fouls continued to mount and Oak Creek went dry for the last 5:05 of the third quarter. In that time, the Papermakers went on a 6-0 run and got a buzzer-beater off a lay-up from Sara Rosenow that tied the score for the first time in the game at 27-27 going into the fourth quarter.
"They were the most physical team we played all year," said Hluchnik. "They were little bulldogs out there."
Oak Creek went up 31-30 with 2:24 left on a pair of Sims' free throws, but then didn't score again for close to another two minutes. In that time, the Papermakers' Marley Chevalier hit two free throws and got a steal and lay-up to make it 36-31 with 50 seconds left.
And with Kimberly's seemingly bottomless ability to pull out close games -- three games leading into the tournament were decided by a total of four points -- did Hluchnik succumb to a degree of fatalism, that it just wasn't going to be his team's night?
"No, we couldn't let that happen," he said.
And the Knights didn't.
Santi drained a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 36-34 with 42 seconds to go and after Kimberly's Jenna Smarzinski hit one of two free throws with 34 seconds on the clock to make it 37-34, the Knights drew up a play for Finn, who hit two earlier threes.
She had her first attempt blocked, but got it back and tried another one, getting fouled in the process. Finn put in the first two, but after a Kimberly timeout missed the potential tying third throw with 22 seconds left.
But Kostowicz, who seemed to be everywhere in the final minutes, corralled the miss. There were not one but two jump balls, and the Knights had a chance at a go-ahead shot but missed.
Kimberly tried to put the game away at the foul line but couldn't, as Frankie Wurtz hit just one of two free throws with four seconds left to make it 38-36. It was a recurring theme for the Papermakers, as they made just 14 of 26 free throws in the game, including just 7 of 14 in the fourth quarter.
That left Oak Creek with a chance. A long downcourt pass was deflected out of bounds, and the Knights got the ball back with 2.2 seconds left setting up Kostowicz's tieing lay-up at the buzzer. Santi had the assist.
"I think in close games, free throws make the difference," said Papermakers coach Troy Cullen. "I'm not going to put it down to any one or two free throws, but we make a few more of those, we win the game."
After Sims' early bucket in the OT, Santi hit one of two free throws to make it 41-38 with 1:02 remaining.
Kostowicz fouled out and Smarzinski hit one of two charity tosses to close the gap to 41-40 with 52 seconds to go. One free throw from Katie Settingsgaard made it 42-40 Oak Creek with 28 seconds left.
But a Papermakers lay-up attempt missed, and Santi grabbed the rebound. That's when Finn went to the foul line and clinched the game.
"The last couple of minutes were unreal," said Finn. "I thought it was over at a couple of times and like the others said, we may have gotten a little lucky, but we made the big plays and we got the senior leadership when it counted."
Smarzinski had 11 points and Chevalier 10 for Kimberly.
For the all-state guard Wurtz, it was a stunning setback after all the close wins.
"We won a lot of those types of games," she said. "I just think we lost a little of our mental toughness. We just made a lot of weird little mistakes down the stretch."
In turn, Oak Creek made a lot of big plays. Kostowicz finished with eight points and eight rebounds while Sims had 10 points, three rebounds and two blocks.
And what about that luck everyone was talking about?
Hluchnik said one of his players told him afterwards that the Knights "were a little lucky" this night, but he told the team, "sometimes you have to be a little lucky in order to win a state title."
Oak Creek will see if that, plus grit and skill can combine for such an event Saturday night.
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