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D2 Semi-Final Notes: Whitnall, Pewaukee survive heart stoppers to advance to title game

03/18/2023, 10:15am CDT
By Dick Knapinski

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Pewaukee is relieved and excited to survive a last second shot by Nicolet

As hard as Pewaukee had worked to put itself in position for a third straight state championship game appearance, the Pirates left the Knights a final opportunity to snatch it away. But when Davion Hannah’s three-point attempt fell short, the three-peat possibility still remained.

“I don’t know if we dealt with the pressure of the moment or the pressure of the game itself very well as a team,” Pewaukee coach David Burkemper said. “But at the end of the day, we talk about going 1-and-oh, so we now have a chance to play for our third gold ball in a row and we’re ecstatic about that.”

It took all of the Pirates’ talent and state experience to turn away Nicolet, which had only two seniors who saw playing time on Friday. Most of Pewaukee’s final effort came from this year’s state co-Mr. Basketball, Milan Momcilovic, who scored 10 of his 32 points in the final 2:20.

“I think everything was kind of filtering through me,” he said. “There really wasn’t a point where I said that I need to take this game over because that’s how I always play. At that time, my team needed me to step up.”

It started with a three-pointer with 2:20 remaining to tie the game at 51, a deadlock quickly erased by David Bolden’s there for the Knights. Momcilovic, who also had 11 rebounds, then hit two free throws, a hook shot and two more free throws to give the Pirates a 58-54 advantage with 31 seconds left.

That nearly proved not to be enough, however, has Hannah’s putback cut the lead to two with 13 seconds remaining. After a jump ball with four seconds left that gave the ball back to the Knights, their final play suddenly left Hannah open with a three from the right corner to win it.

“We’ve been running that play at the end of practice since day one. We knew someday we might need it,” Nicolet coach Terence Smith said. “If there were four seconds left, we would go for the three or for a layup, depending what the score was. Obviously, we were going for the win. I’d never change that.”

Hannah finished 23 points to lead the Knights, who led 29-26 at the half. Nick Janowski scored 15 points for Pewaukee, who outscored Nicolet in the paint 34-20.

Whitnall's Ethan Thomas slams one home in a win over La Crosse Central

The shot missed, the buzzer had sounded, but the game was not yet over as Whitnall (25-3) advanced to a state championship game for the first time since 1988. Falcons sophomore Myles Herro became the hero as a big play and a big call led to the controversial finish on Friday afternoon.

Herro sank a free throw with time expired after being fouled on a final three-point attempt, the last of his game-high 21 points, to end a frenzied end of regulation. The Riverhawks’ Bennett Fried had the last of his team-high 17 points, including nine in the final six minutes, on a putback to tie it as 52 with 17 seconds left. Following a timeout, Whitnall looked to get an open shot on the right side of the court against a scrambling Central defense.

Herro finally got an opening in the right corner and fired a three that bounced away, but officials called a foul on Frankie Wilk, giving Herro three tries to make one. He sank the first one and after ensuring that time had truly expired, sent the Falcons into a mixture of joy and relief.

“When I got passed the ball, I knew I was shooting,” Herro said of the final seconds, as he had hit six three-pointers to that point. “When I got to the free throw line, I knew I was going to hit it.”

Wilk, along with Fried, had been the Riverhawks’ heroes to that point. Wilk hit five of seven three-point tries Friday after making just 11 all season.

“I told (Wilk) that we never would have made it to that point of the game without what he did earlier,” Central coach Todd Fergot said. “It didn’t come down to one play. There were many opportunities throughout the game, whether it was a rebound here, a turnover there, a missed shot or free throw whenever that just didn’t go our way.”

Fergot met with the officials at the end of the game to ensure the horn had indeed sounded and he was prepared with a play even if there was a tenth of a second remaining. When the officials and official timer could not determine whether there was any time left, Herro’s subsequent two free throws weren’t necessary and the game ended.

Whitnall led by as many as nine points in a grinding first half before Central (23-6) rallied to close to 23-20 at the break. The Falcons took a six-point lead midway through the second half before the Riverhawks closed again. Central took a 50-48 lead on Nic Williams driving layup with 1:59 remaining. Following a Falcons free throw, Herro then hit a three-pointer with 46 seconds left to put Whitnall up 52-50 before Fried’s basket tied it, leading the wild finish.

“At the end of day, the players play and they’ve got to make the plays, so we try to put them in a position where they can make plays,” Whitnall coach Travis Riesop said. “We were really poised, we didn’t turn it over and we ended up getting a shot at the end. It might not have been the one we set up, but it’ll do.”

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