Title contenders in the Eastern Wisconsin and Packerland conferences squared off Thursday in Kiel and the host Raiders used a late rally to overcome a poor shooting night and register a 45-44 triumph over Kewaunee.
Kiel, which improved to 8-1 and trails front-running Brillion by one game in the Eastern Wisconsin standings, got two three-point baskets and a three-play play from sophomore Braden Aprill in the closing six minutes to turn back Kewaunee.
Junior point guard Pierce Arenz also made some big plays for Kiel down the stretch, but the biggest was turned in by junior Landon Brunner.
The 6-foot-1 Brunner caught a pass on the right wing, squared up for a three-point shot and it swished through to provide the Raiders with their narrow winning margin.
Kewaunee, which fell to 7-2 and is one-half game behind Peshtigo in the Packerland standings, had two possessions after Brunner's big shot, but two turnovers killed any shot of a triumph for the Storm in the spirited if not artistic non-league contest.
Despite the victory, members of the Kiel basketball program felt they played far less than a good game.
Coach Marcus Rumpff said afterwards his players knew they dodged a defeat and there was little celebrating going on in the Raiders' locker room.
"Our guys are not happy with how we played," Rumpff said. "It's a pretty quiet locker room right now, despite the win. We know we didn't play well. I didn't recognize our team in the first half. We are an up-tempo team and I thought Kewaunee's defense gave us a lot of trouble."
Identifying his team was likely a problem for Rumpff through the first 11 minutes of the second half as well as Kiel had managed to make just six field goals through the first 29 minutes of the contest.
By that point, Kewaunee had built a 37-25 lead and it looked like the Raiders were headed for a setback.
But Aprill hit a pair of triples to ignite the rally, Kewaunee senior Sawyer Pribek fouled out, the Storm rushed some shots and the game quickly became a dog fight.
Arenz, one of the better juniors in the state and an exceptionally quick and skilled point guard, came into the contest averaging 17.6 ppg. He made some big plays down the stretch, both by scoring and passing, and managed to finish right at his average. He now sits just 12 points shy of 1,000 for his three-year prep career.
"Nine times out of 10, Pierce makes the right play," Rumpff said. "He's very unselfish and he leads our team in assists."
On the possession that led to Brunner's game winner, Arenz got the ball in the backcourt, drove to the left side of the lane and then passed over to Aprill on the wing once Kewaunee came with a double team. Aprill quickly passed over to Brunner, who left fly with his clinching basket.
"Landon was just one of four from three-point range tonight," Rumpff said. "His specialty is shooting, but he's been struggling of late. Hopefully, that basket will give him confidence going forward."
Aprill finished with 14 points and junior forward Grant Manz (6-5), a three-year varsity performer, added six points and 13 rebounds.
"Aprill was our leading scorer earlier in the season," Rumpff said. "He's really coming along now. He puts in a lot of time and it paid off tonight."
Manz struggled a bit to break free offensively against a Kewaunee frontline that included Pribek (6-0) and seniors Cal Ihlenfeldt (6-3) and Jordan Lamack (6-2).
"We're struggling a bit with getting Grant to take control," Rumpff said. "He's a bit hesitant at times once he gets the ball in the post."
Kiel made 14 of 42 shots from the field for 33 percent, but that includes eight baskets in the final seven minutes of the game. Prior to that point, the Raiders were under 20 percent.
When you dictate tempo for the first 29 minutes and take a 12-point lead with just under seven minutes left, you probably feel pretty darn good about your chances for a victory.
Kewaunee did both of those things Thursday, but the Storm still left Kiel with a bitter 45-44 loss.
"We struggled with their defensive pressure at the end," Kewaunee coach Lucas Neitzel said. "I thought we rushed some shots and relied on perimeter shots too much in the final minutes. I like it when we go inside/outside, but we stopped doing that. Losing Sawyer to fouls was a big deal. He's a four-year player and is smart with the ball."
Pribek battled four trouble throughout the contest and fouled out with 4:36 left. His absence was felt on both ends, but particularly on offense. Pribek's calm demeanor and smart passing out of the high post or low block were missing as Kiel's pressure defense forced Kewaunee to stay on the perimeter.
When Pribek departed, Kewaunee still had a 39-30 lead, but it quickly evaporated behind the heroics of Aprill, Arenz and Brunner.
Junior guard Thomas Stangel (6-0) played well for Kewaunee, scoring a team-high 13 points. His backcourt running mate, senior Payton Kohnle (5-11), also performed at a high level, finishing with 11 points.
Leading scorer Cal Ihlenfeldt was limited to just one basket and two points after coming into the game averaging 16.9 ppg.
"We sped them up a bit in the first half with our defense," Neitzel said. "Our pressure was good. Nine minutes into the second half, Kiel had scored just four points.
"I thought they moved the ball a little bit better down the stretch, and our rotations were slow to get out on their shooters."