With each passing game, the Cedarburg boys' WIAA Division 2 tournament run becomes more remarkable, memorable and thrilling.
The Bulldogs' previous three playoff games had been decided by 1, 3 and 3 points, with every one going down to the final seconds. It seemed unlikely that they could be topped for sheer excitement and suspense.
Cedarburg's 73-70 state semifinal victory over Milwaukee Washington on March 17 featured 13 ties, 11 lead changes, a pair of overtimes and a state-tournament individual scoring record, John Diener's 46 points.
"That was a great game," Washington coach Fred Riley said. "That was one to remember and one that people will remember for years."
The only question is, what can Cedarburg's state championship game against La Crosse Central at 6:35 p.m. Saturday, March 18 possibly do to build upon that? Perhaps four overtimes, with a game-winning shot from halfcourt at the buzzer?
Toughness is key
Cedarburg coach Tom Diener, whose team improved to 25-2, said there is one big reason why his team is able to keep pulling out games like this.
"To win the big games, you have to have mental and physical toughness," he said. "We have been working on that for my four years here. Our guys have become physically and mentally tough. I actually thought fatigue would get us. We don't sub much, and I know John was really tired. We just held on."
John Diener had every reason to be tired at the end after his record-setting effort. He connected on 16 of 29 from the floor, including 5 of 8 from 3-point range, en route to his 46 points, which topped the 45 from Appleton West's Brian Butch in 2003. Diener had beaten the Division 2 mark of 33 points midway through the second half.
"John had a big-time game," said Riley, whose team finished 22-5. "DePaul (where Diener plans to attend college) will love that."
Diener himself said, "I used the same approach as every game, let the game come to me and be unselfish. My teammates got me the ball in good position, and I was able to knock some shots down."
Diener's teammate, Jordan Johnson, actually hit the biggest shot of all, though.
With the game tied at 68-68 in the second overtime, Johnson nailed a 3-point field goal from the right wing to put Cedarburg up, 71-68, with 30 seconds left. Johnson had endured a poor shooting night (2 of 10) up to that point but swished the tie-breaking shot.
"I had struggled with my shooting," said Johnson, who nevertheless finished with 17 points. "I was open and I got good looks. I finally got one to go down in the last minute."
Washington's Jalen Stephen-Holmes scored inside to trim the margin to 71-70 with 9 seconds left, then several crucial seconds ran off the clock as the Purgolders tried to get a five-second call on Cedarburg before finally calling timeout with 2.9 seconds left.
"We could have called timeout earlier," Riley said, "but those seconds did not decide the game. We missed a lot of free throws (nine), and we didn't play good defense in the first half."
Coach Diener said, "When I saw the time come off, that made us feel good. There were just a couple of seconds left."
Johnson was fouled on the inbounds play with 1.8 seconds left and hit both free throws to make it 73-70. Washington could just get off a long half-court shot as the final buzzer sounded.
The game was close in the early going, and Cedarburg took a 17-14 advantage on a free throw by Diener, his 11th point of the contest.
Washington went on a 12-2 run featuring 3-pointers from Jordan Dinsmore and Treshawn Rush to go ahead, 26-19, but then the Bulldogs finished the half on a 21-4 burst to take a 40-30 halftime lead. Diener scored 15 points in that stretch, including his team's final 10 points.
The Purgolders gradually crept back into the game and tied it at 48-48 with 7:58 left on a shot from Tyree Ellis, who led them with 23 points.
Washington took a 52-50 lead before Diener nailed a 3-pointer for his 37th point to put Cedarburg back up, 53-52.
Later, Diener hit a baseline shot and free throw to reach the 40-point mark and give the Bulldogs a 58-55 advantage. Stephen-Holmes netted a free throw, and Ellis scored to tie the game at 58-58 with 1:29 remaining in regulation.
Both teams missed shots after that, sending the game into overtime.
In the first extra session, the Bulldogs took 2-point leads three times, only to have Washington tie it. Johnson's putback gave Cedarburg a 64-62 advantage, but Dinsmore connected from the lane to make it 64-64 and force the second overtime.
Johnson hit two free throws for a 68-66 lead with 2:43 left, then Deontay Long tied it again for Washington with 2:17 remaining. That set up Johnson's game-winning shot.
"I think the last couple of games really helped us," Johnson said. "We played some tough teams, Brown Deer, Beaver Dam and Kaukauna, and we played in some hostile environments. That really paid off for us."
Coach Diener added, "The ball has to bounce the right way to win games like this. This is a testament to our hard work, commitment and toughness."