After providing last-minute heroics in his team's previous two WIAA playoff victories, Cedarburg's John Diener was forced to leave those duties to his teammates in a WIAA Division 2 sectional championship game on March 11.
The other Bulldogs responded, making the big plays and sinking the free throws to clinch a tough 78-75 triumph over defending state champion Kaukauna and a trip to the state tournament next week in Madison.
Diener had fouled out of the contest with 1 minute, 30 seconds left and had to watch the remainder of the game from an unwanted spot on the bench, along with teammate Jared Short, who had also departed with five fouls.
"I had really never been in a situation like that," said Diener, who tallied a team-high 21 points. "Jared and I were both on the bench, and we were just really nervous because it got closer at the end, but to see those guys step up and pull it out was great."
Matt Barber, who hit 7 of 8 free throws in the final 3 minutes and finished with 18 points, said, "When John and Jared went down, we knew we had to step up and knock down some free throws, and luckily, we made enough."
The Bulldogs, a strong free-throw shooting team all season, connected on 15 of 20 from the line in the final 3 minutes. That enabled them to stay slightly ahead of onrushing Kaukauna, which received 11 points in the final minute from all-state point guard Jordan McCabe, who finished with a game-high 36 points.
"We hung on," said coach Tom Diener, whose team improved to 24-2 and earned the boys' first state trip since 1999. "Fortunately, we had enough of a lead that we could milk it and get to the end of the game. Our guys did a good job of that. We made some free throws; you've got to make the free throws."
Cedarburg put five players in double figures, with Jordan Johnson adding 16 points, Short 11 and Clayton Van Tassel 10.
The Bulldogs will meet Milwaukee Washington at 3:15 p.m. Friday, March 17, at the Kohl Center in a state semifinal game. Washington advanced with a victory over New Berlin Eisenhower.
Cedarburg is certainly tournament-tough after posting three nail-biting victories over Woodland Conference East Division co-champion Brown Deer, Wisconsin Little Ten champion Beaver Dam and reigning Division 2 state champion Kaukauna.
"Every game has been tough in this tournament," coach Diener said. "I feel like we won a state championship getting through Brown Deer, Beaver Dam and now Kaukauna. I think all three of those teams could have been state champions. We've strung three really great games together."
The game against Kaukauna (16-10) was close from the start, and the teams stood at 45-45 midway through the second half when Diener went on a scoring spurt to give his team the lead for good.
He nailed a 3-point field goal from the top of the circle to break the tie with 7 minutes, 52 seconds remaining, then drove the lane for a 3-point play to make it 51-45 with 7:09 left. After a Kaukauna basket by Eric Carl (12 points on the game), Diener went inside for another 3-point play and a 54-47 advantage.
A basket from the free-throw line by Barber capped a 13-4 run that gave Cedarburg a 58-49 lead with 5:39 remaining.
The advantage remained between 7 and 10 points until McCabe netted two free throws on the play in which Diener fouled out to make it 67-62 with 1:30 left.
McCabe gets hot
Johnson hit three free throws to put Cedarburg ahead 72-64 with 46.8 seconds left, but McCabe started to get hot at that point. He converted a 3-point play to trim it to 72-67, then after two free throws from Barber, McCabe was fouled shooting a 3-pointer and hit all three tosses to bring his team within 74-70.
Johnson made two free throws for a 76-70 lead, but McCabe connected on a 3-pointer to make it 76-73, still with 22.9 seconds remaining.
"It was like we would make two, then they would come down and hit a 3-pointer," Barber recalled, "but we just had to gut it out."
Patrick McKenzie and Van Tassel then each hit 1 of 2 from the line to make it 78-73 with 7.9 seconds remaining. McCabe was fouled twice but went only 1 of 2 each time, leaving Cedarburg up 78-75 with 1.9 seconds left.
The Bulldogs inbounded the ball to midcourt and held on, touching off a wild scene that included coach Diener, his sport jacket long since removed and his shirt completely untucked, pointing up into the Cedarburg crowd, then to the sky in celebration.
"It's going to take a little while for me to take this one in," Diener said. "Our program has come so far. It was pretty much down and out when I got to Cedarburg, and we really had to roll up our sleeves and get to work and make some tough decisions. We kept plugging away. We had some good, solid kids. The seniors bought in from day one and I told them before the game, 'Win, lose or draw, I am so proud of you guys, how hard you've worked and how you bought into what I've been teaching.'"