Knights' path to state tourney blocked
Pius ends Oak Creek's surprising postseason run in sectional
Oak Creek — The Oak Creek girls basketball team wasn't even supposed to be playing Saturday, but there the Knights were, holding a slim fourth-quarter lead in a WIAA sectional final against Pius XI at Whitefish Bay.
The Knights probably weren't even supposed to make it to the sectional at all, but there they were, 24 hours after they knocked off the state's top-ranked squad, the Nicolet Knights, in a semifinal.
In fact, many had written Oak Creek off months ago, around the time senior Angela Rodriguez hurt her ankle and was forced to miss significant time. But there were the Knights, approximately 7 minutes away from advancing to their fifth state tournament and second in three years.
Falling just short
Fifth-seeded Oak Creek eventually fell tantalizingly short of another state appearance, losing to second-seeded Pius, 48-43, in the final, but not before making a statement.
"Nobody without blue on thought we had a chance and we thought we did (after) getting Angela back," said first-year Oak Creek coach Steve Hluchnik about his team's postseason run that also included a regional final upset over fourth-seeded Milwaukee King.
"We were a pretty darn good team early in the year. We lost her and our kids grew up. We knew down deep thought we could make a run. It sucks to lose, but I'm very proud of the kids and I think we gained some respect in the basketball world. Oak Creek is a darn good program."
On Saturday, junior forward Ashley Luke's basket in the paint gave Oak Creek a 30-29 lead over Pius with 7 minutes, 26 seconds remaining. But the Popes pulled down four key offensive rebounds over the next four and a half minutes that led to eight big points as Pius built a 39-34 lead with 2:37 left.
From there, the Popes made just nine of 18 free throws, but it was enough to fend off the Knights down the stretch.
Rebounding was 'downfall'
"As good as we have been in the tournament and during the regular season at (rebounding), (Saturday) it was our downfall," Hluchnik said. "We were outstanding in the first half with it, but I don't think we could have done a worse job in the second. Two or three times it happened (when) it was a four-point lead and they'd get it back and it was back to six. We could never get it back down to that one-possession game. They out-hustled and out-efforted us in the fourth quarter."
After Luke's basket early in the fourth, Pius' Terri Bender put back one of teammate's misses to reclaim the lead for the Popes at 31-30 with 6:08 left. Pius never trailed again.
After an Oak Creek turnover, another second-chance bucket, this time a 3-pointer by Julia Borsari - her only points of the game - extended the Popes' lead to 34-30.
A few moments later, Kelly Frings knocked down a pair of free throws after grabbing an offensive rebound following a missed free-throw attempt by Bender. That pushed the lead to 38-32.
"We talked about it at halftime. We were one and done," Pius coach Scott Herrick said. "We weren't following our shots. We were just kind of standing around. We said you guys have to make it happen, not just wait for it to happen."
Key 3-point attempt fails
Later in the quarter, Oak Creek had a chance to tie the game at 39 with just less than two minutes to go but missed a rushed, off-balanced 3-point attempt.
Sisters Terri and Tierra Bender scored 17 points each for the Popes, including 21 of the team's 33 second-half points.
"We had no answer," Hluchnik said. "We played King, we played Nicolet - we played with that quickness. They must be quicker than those girls. We switched kids up on them. We went to a zone and they penetrated the zone. They were definitely the difference in the game, both of them.
"They got in the paint whenever they wanted."
Luke finished with a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds. Rodriguez, a four-year varsity player, finished with 10 points and five assists.
"They're awesome players. They are tougher than heck," Herrick said. "Angela is a one-man wrecking crew."
→ Sectional semifinal: Rodriguez leads team to upset win. Page 24
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