Whitefish Bay boys basketball coach Kevin Lazovik said that because you're at the WIAA state tournament, of course you feel some pressure. There's a large crowd, the bands, the noise and all that television coverage.
He should know, he was at state with the Blue Dukes as a reserve on the 1996 state D2 championship squad and on the state-bound squad of 1997 as starting point guard.
Lazovik also knows that family and friends want you to win in the worst way possible and that there are so many distractions in the week leading up to the actual games.
So, with all that weight behind this current edition of the Blue Dukes, how was his team reacting in the minutes before its state semifinal against fifth-ranked Seymour (23-4)?
By being themselves.
"They're the loosest bunch of happy goofballs we've ever seen," said one Bay assistant before the game. "If they're feeling any pressure, they're not showing it. Ron (Patten) is in there (the lockerroom) singing away like it was just another day."
But in the way the Blue Dukes performed on the game's highest stage in the Kohl Center in Madison, this was just not any other day, as they were cool, calm and collected in the clutch.
Especially senior center Jamie Schneck, as he raced in behind guard Kelin Johnson's missed lay-up attempt and tipped it in at the buzzer for a 54-52 victory and a berth in Saturday night's D2 finals against another upset winner, Merrill.
"Just a terrific, terrific game," said Lazovik, "...but I never thought that we'd lose, even when we were down nine (in the first half). We've been in situations like this before. Would we have liked the execution to have been better at the end? Of course, but we were able to take care of things."
The Blue Dukes (19-8) will face the Blue Jays (16-11) for the state D2 championship back at the Kohl Center in Madison at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. The Blue Jays scored an equally stunning victory over top-ranked Waunakee (25-2), in the first semifinal.
Bay is in its first state and finals appearance since the 1998 state championship season and were never really shaken by the highly experienced (three, three-year starters) Thunder.
Even after the red-clad Bay Conference champions roared back in the final quarter from a seven-point deficit.
Johnson (13 points) finished off an 8-0 Bay run with a nice give-and-go basket off a feed from Will Davis that made it 46-39 Blue Dukes with 6:05 remaining. Moments before, Schneck, who sat most of the second quarter with three fouls, had picked up his fourth on a charging call.
He knew he had to stay in the game mentally for the stretch run.
"I had to keep my confidence up," said Schneck. "I got those early fouls but I knew I still had to play a big role in the second half. If I wasn't scoring, I had to stay involved. I guess it all worked out in the end."
But not without some harrowing moments in-between.
Schneck was out only a short time after that fourth foul and that was a good thing for Bay, because the three-point bombing Seymour squad roared back. It was still 51-46 Blue Dukes with 4:26 to play after a Cal Ehrke jumper, but then Bay would turn the ball over on four straight possessions.
In the interim, Seymour's Calahan Skogman (15 points) scored on a putback to make it 51-47 with 3:25 to go, and then his teammate Nick Hornick hit the last of the Thunder's 10 three-pointers in the game with a shot from the wing at the 2:12 mark to cut the margin to 51-50.
With the Kohl Center crowd at a fever pitch, the two squads each missed out on opportunities over the next 1:30. Finally, Patten, who led all Bay scorers with 14 points, hit one of two free throws to make it 52-50 Blue Dukes with just 25 seconds left.
The Thunder then came down and ran a neat high-low off the wing, with Phil Romback (16 points) getting the easy tieing lay-up with just nine seconds to go.
Again, the Blue Dukes were forced to swallow hard and get their confidence back. Last week, Patten hit a clutch game-winning shot in the lane against highly-favored Wisconsin Lutheran.
How would the play break down this time?
When asked after the game about what he was thinking of at that moment, Lazovik could only laugh and say:
"I was just thinking I was glad we had a little more time to work with, because I didn't want to have to draw a last-second Christian Laettner/Duke-style play (arguably the most famous play in NCAA history)."
No, he didn't. The ball came in-bounds and went to the sophomore guard Johnson. Johnson came off a high-screen at the free throw line, a play the Blue Dukes had been making a big living at in the second half.
He went hard to the basket, but the shot came off the front rim.
That's when Schneck displayed the ultimate amount of confidence.
"As a big man, I'm always looking to crash the boards," he said. "I always try to be there and the way the shot came off, all I had to do was tip it in."
Thunder coach Jon Murphy, who admitted that in some basketball circles, his veteran club was "destined" to win the state title, was understandably crushed, but noted that it took a heck of play to get the job done.
"We wanted to make sure what happened in the Appleton East-Germantown (super sectional game Tuesday night won by East on a buzzer-beating rebound) didn't happen to us," he said, "We wanted to make sure we got the rebound, but the 6-8 kid (Schneck) made a play. He came over the back and got it done."
"We certainly could have blocked out better."
The victory was a sweet pice of serendipty for the second-year coach Lazovik, who was happy to be back in the finals again.
"It's a good feeling," he said. "Back then (in the 1990s) I was fortunate to be with some great players and now I'm fortunate to have some great players of my own to work with and be surrounded by some equally great coaches."
"It's just so gratifying to have this kind of success as both a player and a coach. Both situations are such great experiences."
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