The Whitefish Bay boys basketball team looked good, felt confident and was primed for a long WIAA tournament run after a solid push at the end of the regular season.
Only that momentum was abruptly halted by Woodland Conference West Division champion Pius XI Saturday night as the Popes used stout defense, a slowdown style of play and strong rebounding to hold the Blue Dukes at arm's-length in a 54-46 WIAA Division 2 regional final.
"We struggled offensively all night long," said Blue Dukes coach Kevin Lazovik. "They played good defense and the ball just didn't seem to bounce our way tonight."
With the win, Pius XI (19-5) advanced to a D2 sectional semifinal Thursday at Brown Deer against sectional top seed and returning D2 state runner-up Wisconsin Lutheran. Lutheran beat Milwaukee Messmer in its regional final.
Bay closed out another solid season at 18-6.
From the get-go, Pius was bound and determined to minimize the effectiveness of the Blue Dukes press and their half-court zone defense. The Popes took their time on offense and made Bay play a lot of defense.
Still, in the first quarter, it was Bay that turned in the strong defensive effort, holding the Popes scoreless for the last 6:30 of the period in taking an 8-4 lead. But Bay was hampered when 6-6 senior forward Joe Sherburne, who scored six of the team's points in the period, picked up his second foul with 1:08 left in the session.
He played on, but the fouls may have hampered his effectiveness. Sherburne did hit a 3-pointer with 51 seconds left in the second quarter to give Bay a 16-15 lead at the half.
Bay reached its high point when senior guard Miles Sigh hit two free throws in the first minute of the third quarter to make it 18-15.
But the Popes would then hold the Blue Dukes scoreless for over three minutes and go on an 8-0 run. When Popes senior guard Donovan Jackson converted a 3-point play with 5:01 left in the third, Pius had a 23-18 advantage.
The lead would never drop below three again, and after Jackson drained a 3-pointer and Popes junior center Levi Bradley hit a shot in the lane to make it 30-21 with 1:48 left in the third, Bay would never again get inside of six points.
Aside from its strong defensive effort, Pius collected numerous offensive rebounds in the second half, giving the Popes many second chances and allowing them to run more clock.
"We struggled to rebound tonight too," said Lazovik. "We'd work hard to get a stop and then we wouldn't finish it off with a solid rebound."
The advantage varied between 6 and 10 points in the fourth as the period turned into a free-throw shooting contest. The Popes hit 13 of 17 charity tosses in the fourth, while Bay, which had its problems from the field for much of the final session, stayed in the game with a 9-of-12 free-throw effort.
But when Sigh fouled out on a charging call with 40 seconds left in a 50-43 game, the handwriting was on the wall.
All told, Pius hit 18 of 24 free throws on the night. Jackson, who along with Bradley, led all scorers with 22 points, hit 10 of 11 attempts from the stripe.
Bay was led by Sherburne with 17 points as Sigh, who hit 10 of 12 free throws himself, finished with 12.
"They (the Popes) just did a very good job of controlling the tempo," said Lazovik. "We also didn't make enough shots to set up our press and the problem when you get down in high school ball, there is no shot clock so that makes our zone defense a lot less effective.
"They could just pull it out and hold it."