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Game Report: Sheboygan Lutheran 67, Kohler 56

02/17/2024, 12:30pm CST
By Mark Miller

Despite a huge second-half rally that cut a 22-point lead down to just four, Sheboygan Lutheran was not to be denied Friday night.

Playing on its home floor in front of a loud, packed gym, the Crusaders held off Kohler's surge to record a 67-56 victory that gave coach Nick Verhagen's squad a share of the Big East South Conference title.

Four players reached double figures to lead a very balanced Sheboygan Lutheran attack as the Crusaders improved to 20-2 and avenged an earlier loss to the Blue Bombers.

Kohler suffered its first loss of the season and slipped to 22-1, but the visitors didn't go down without a fight.

After Elliott Leibham hit the fourth of his four three-point baskets to give the Crusaders a 44-22 lead, Kohler responded with an impressive 25-7 run over the next eight minutes. Senior Max Breitenbach capped the rally with a three-point basket to cut the margin to 51-47 with six minutes left.

But the Crusaders settled down, did a better job of handling Kohler's full-court pressure defense and made free throws down the stretch to record the triumph.

"We were the more physical and disciplined team today and the least time we played, it was the other way around," Verhagen said. "We got to the free-throw line and were able to handle the press over the final few minutes of the game."

Player of the Game

Jake Thomas

Jake Thomas, 6-0, Jr., G, Sheboygan Lutheran
Thomas helped the Crusaders get off to a quick start with his ability to get to the basket and score. Thomas produced six quick points as Sheboygan Lutheran took a 17-5 lead six minutes into the contest. The Crusaders eventually led 31-16 at intermission. In addition to his calming presence, ability to handle and move the ball, and use his physical strength to get to the basket, Thomas also did a stellar job of guarding Kohler's top scorer, senior Trey Keller. Keller came into the contest averaging 19.4 ppg and Thomas helped to hold him to just 14 points on Friday. Keller had 40 points in the last meeting between the two schools. Finally, Thomas stepped up and made three-of-four free throws in the closing minutes to help secure another league title for the Crusaders, who last won the Big East crown in 2021-22. 

Play of the Game

The wheels appeared to be coming off for Sheboygan Lutheran with just over eight minutes left as Kohler used pressure defense, some hot shooting and renewed energy to cut what had been a 22-point deficit down to eight. With Kohler defenders chasing all over the court to create havoc, sophomore Brennen Hackbarth stepped up for Sheboygan Lutheran, making a difficult layup in traffic to help slow the Blue Bombers. Kohler would later cut the margin to just four at 51-47, but Hackbarth's basket seemed to settle things down for the Crusaders.

Unsung Hero

Nolan Girdaukas, 6-2, Sr., F, Sheboygan Lutheran
Like Thomas, Girdaukas provided outstanding defense, making things very difficult for Kohler's talented junior center, Zane Willadsen (6-4). Using his physical strength and refusal to lose, Girdaukas helped to limit Willadsen to a hard-earned 14 points. Offensively, Girdaukas stepped up to score 10 points. A two-year varsity performer for the Crusaders, Girdaukas is averaging 3.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg and 2.7 apg, and he turned in one of his best games of the campaign with a conference title on the line. "Nolan on Zane and Jake on Trey ... both did a nice job of slowing them down," Verhagen said. "We wanted our guys to be aggressive and Nolan and Jake did that tonight."

From the Winning Coach

"We needed out depth tonight and will need it to excel in the playoffs as well. Guys like Asa Diener are very important to our team. Asa is a senior for us who does lunch pail stuff. He excels in his role, which is just wonderful for our team." -- Sheboygan Lutheran coach Nick Verhagen

Tidbits ...

Kohler's winning streak ended at 22 games, but the Blue Bombers figure to be one of the teams to beat in Sectional 4 of Division 4. The top half of the sectional is loaded with very good teams from the Big East. Besides Kohler, Big East North Conference champion Howards Grove, Sheboygan Lutheran, Manitowoc Lutheran and Laconia will be attempting to earn a spot in the sectional finals ... Kohler was one of three teams in the state that entered Friday's games with undefeated records. Kiel and Wisconsin Lutheran both won, leaving just two unbeaten teams left in the state ... The game was extremely physical and called very closely. Kohler shot 28 free throws while Sheboygan Lutheran attempted 32 ... Both teams figure to be among the elite in the Big East Conference over the next several seasons. Kohler started three juniors and played three underclassmen off the bench while Sheboygan Lutheran started two juniors and a sophomore while utilizing two freshmen and a sophomore in reserve roles.

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