It sounded, felt and looked like a state championship game, and for all intents and purposes, it might end up being just that.
Whitefish Bay Dominican took all it could handle from less-heralded Laconia, but the Knights are going back to Madison to defend their Division 4 state title after defeating the Spartans, 52-39, at the sectional final at Brookfield Central on Saturday.
Dominican will face a familiar foe in the state semifinals at 8:15 p.m. Thursday in Madison: undefeated Cuba City (26-0). The Knights defeated Cuba City, 61-43, for last season’s state title.
The Knights separated themselves in the final quarter against Laconia, but until then, it was the dogfight Dominican head coach Derek Berger expected. After three, the Knights (22-4) were clinging to a 32-30 lead over the previously unbeaten Spartans (25-1).
“I’ve seen them four of five different times,” Berger said. “I knew they were going to a 2-3 zone, a 1-3-1, and we knew they could shoot the ball real well, so we knew we were in for a really tough night. They’re a good, well-coached team. So we knew from Thursday we were in for a battle and that’s pretty much what we got.”
Laconia held a 23-20 lead at halftime, thanks in large part to a stingy defensive effort that all but removed 6-foot-9 Dominican sophomore center Diamond Stone from the game. Stone had just two points at the half and was having more trouble on the glass than usual despite Laconia’s lack of size.
“They did a good job of getting low and getting into his legs, and even when he jumped, they got behind his body,” Berger said. “He’s such a great player that he’s able to make minor adjustments, and in the second half, he was able to get in better positions.”
Just like in Thursday night’s matchup with Kenosha St. Joseph, when Stone’s impact was limited due to early foul trouble, Marquette-bound senior guard Duane Wilson took over with an 11-point first half. Wilson led the Knights with a game-high 22 points, and he helped Stone get involved with two second-half alley-oops that made an already raucous crowd jump to its feet.
“It feels great to go back [to Madison] twice in a row,” Wilson said. “Last year, it was more of like a cakewalk in this game. We came out on fire. This time, we were down. In the second half, coach just told us we had to pick up the pressure. We started playing Dominican basketball and picked up the ‘W.'"
Wilson said once the Knights stopped relying on Stone to do the dirty work on his own, things turned around.
“We stopped ball-watching,” he said. “In the first half, we were boxing out, but we were watching the ball and expecting Diamond to get it every time because he usually does. This was a different team and they were crashing in and getting the rebounds.”
Berger agreed with his star player’s assessment.
“(Laconia) had 10 second-chance points at halftime, and that’s not like us,” he said. “We put an emphasis on boxing out and attacking the glass and that’s what we did.”
After Laconia’s Tyler Rickert pulled his team within 30-28 midway through the third, Berger decided to have Wilson hold the ball at the top of the key to try to bait the Spartans out of their zone defense – and so the Knights could get a breather. The Spartans didn’t budge, however, and Wilson held the ball for three minutes. It was a strategy Berger and Wilson had discussed earlier.
“We were trying to get them to play man or at least keep them moving,” Wilson said. “It was hard to score when they’re all just standing there like that. We got easier baskets after we did that because they started to spread out, and we could get Diamond those easy dunks and tip-ins.”
Wilson, two games away from the dream ending to his senior season, said the year has been special because of the adversity the Knights have endured compared to last season.
“The Little Chute and Germantown games stand out,” he said. “We went to Little Chute and we didn’t expect them to have that kind of defense, and we lose by 20. And Germantown we were in it most of the game, but it got away from us a bit at the end. After losing those two games, we went to practice and started perfecting things so that when we got where we are now, we’d know what to do.”