John Diener had one thought uppermost in his mind as he stepped to the free-throw line with his Cedarburg boys basketball team trailing Brown Deer 70-69 and 7.5 seconds remaining.
"Those last free throws, I just felt I owed it to my teammates for all the work they have put in this year and especially in that game," the junior standout said.
Diener had been fouled on a 3-point field goal attempt, and he calmly nailed the first two free throws to put Cedarburg ahead 71-70 in a taut and thrilling WIAA Division 2 regional championship game on March 4.
"To knock those down just felt so sweet," he said.
He missed the third, which the Falcons rebounded, but when a shot near the free-throw line by Brown Deer's Damon Jackson fell just wide of the hoop at the final buzzer, the Bulldogs had secured the victory and the regional crown.
Cedarburg improved to 22-2 with its 11th straight victory and will play in a sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9, at Hartford High School. Brown Deer, which had won eight straight games, finished 18-6.
Game was thrilling
"That was one of the best games I've ever been a part of or seen," said Diener, who tallied a game-high 33 points. "Those were both great teams. Brown Deer did a heck of a job and had a heck of a season."
John's coach and father, Tom Diener, echoed those sentiments.
"It was just a great high school game," Tom said. "It could have gone either way. Brown Deer's got a great team, skilled players, tough players. These are very similar teams in a lot of respects. We just happened to get the lead at the end."
Jalen Greenlee had put Brown Deer up, 70-69, when he hit two free throws with 31.3 seconds left. The Bulldogs then worked the ball around and got it to Diener, who made a move toward the middle, started to elevate for a 3-point shot and was fouled.
Brown Deer coach Kelly Appleby didn't think a shooting foul necessarily had to be called.
"We had two fouls to give," Appleby said. "We gave a foul there, and they called (Diener) going up. That's what they called, so that's what it was."
Diener's free throws capped a series of seven straight possessions on which the lead changed hands in the final minutes. There were also nine ties in the contest.
"It was a good game the whole way; it was back and forth," Appleby said. "We felt like it would come down to the last possession, and that's what turned out."
The first half of the game featured a breakneck pace throughout and was highlighted by 12 three-point field goals, including seven by Cedarburg.
The Falcons burst to a 26-15 lead on a pair of threes by Greenlee and one each from Jackson and Jay Gentry. The Bulldogs responded with a 13-4 run capped by two threes from Jordan Johnson to make it 30-28.
A 3-pointer from the left corner by Diener put Cedarburg up, 35-32, but Brown Deer tied the game at 35-35. Diener was fouled shooting a 3-pointer with 1.4 seconds left in the half, and in a scene which foreshadowed the end of the game, hit two free throws to give his team a 37-35 halftime edge.
Johnson put in a 3-pointer to increase the lead to 42-38 early in the second half, but the Falcons fought back to tie the contest on three occasions, the last at 46-46.
A three-point play by Greenlee gave Brown Deer a 54-50 advantage, but this time, the Bulldogs rallied, and the game was tied three more times.
Baskets from Jackson, Gentry and Greenlee put the Falcons up 64-58 with about 5 minutes left, but Jared Short hit a jumper and Matt Barber a huge 3-pointer to make it 64-63 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds left.
"Our seniors -- Jared Short, Clayton Van Tassel and Jordan -- showed a lot of character and toughness down the stretch," coach Diener said.
A basket off the break from Johnson put Cedarburg up 65-64 with 3 minutes left and touched off the final sequence of lead changes. Diener scored to make it 69-68 on a shot from the lane that hung on the rim and had just enough spin to fall into the basket with 44 seconds left.
Greenlee followed with his free throws and Diener with his game-winning tosses.
Johnson added 22 points and Van Tassel and Barber 6 each for Cedarburg. For Brown Deer, Gentry finished with 30 points, Greenlee 21 and Jackson 15.