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In light of this year's WIAA Division 2 basketball tournament, the bulldog really is an appropriate nickname for the Cedarburg boys team.

Cedarburg fought with a bulldog mentality through the entire three-week tourney, battling and scrapping every step of the way and prevailing over some of the top teams the state had to offer in a series of thrillers.

Even in the state championship game March 18 against powerful La Crosse Central, featuring senior guard Kobe King, the state's newly-crowned Mr. Basketball, Cedarburg rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half before finally falling, 55-53.

Just like almost all of Cedarburg's post-season games, this one was in doubt until the final seconds, as a three-quarter court heave by John Diener sailed toward the basket but fell just to the right as the buzzer sounded.

The loss ended a brilliant season at 25-3 for the Bulldogs, who had never won a single game at state until this season. Central finished 26-2 in claiming its first state crown since 1925.

Respect earned

It may be small consolation to Cedarburg at this point, but the Bulldogs definitely earned the respect of the Red Raiders.

"That was the toughest team we have played this year," Central coach Todd Fergot said. "They never quit. That is a reflection of their coach. Tom Diener is a legendary coach in Wisconsin, and he is a tough coach. His players reflect that."

King added, "That is a tough team, mentally. When we went up by 10; some teams would have gone behind the curtain, but (the Bulldogs) kept grinding, ran their offense and didn't force anything. They also played great defense."

With his team nursing a narrow 21-18 halftime lead, King caught fire at the start of the second half. He scored 15 quick points, connecting on seven straight shots to help Central build a 38-28 advantage.

"I got into a good rhythm," said King, who scored 21 second-half points to wind up with a game-high 28 in his final game before joining the University of Wisconsin basketball program. "I wanted to go out right away, come out aggressively and give my team a boost."

Diener, who finished with 25 points and tallied 71 for the two games to set a Division 2 tournament scoring mark, then nailed a 3-point field goal to get his team back in the game. Jordan Johnson followed with a pair of 3-pointers to trim the deficit to 42-39.

King netted a 3-point shot to make it 48-41, but Matt Barber hit a triple, and Diener scored on a baseline move to bring Cedarburg within 49-48 with 4 minutes, 45 seconds remaining.

"When we took the 10-point lead, we didn't relax," said Central's Bailey Kale. "We figured they would go on a run."

RELATED:In-game tweets from the boys basketball state tournament

Frantic finish

Johnson then scored to give Cedarburg a 50-49 edge with 2:49 left in the contest.

King answered with a driving bank shot to regain the lead for Central at 51-50. Diener missed a 3-pointer, Barber blocked a shot from King, and Diener was called for traveling while setting up for a jumper with 1:15 left.

Kale took a pass from King for an open layup and later added a free throw for a 54-50 edge with 17 seconds remaining.

Diener hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game to bring his team within 54-53 with 8.7 seconds left.

"I was just trying to do what I could to get the win," Diener said. "I knew I needed to step up and make some threes, make things happen."

Central's Noah Parcher was fouled and missed the front end of a bonus with 5.8 seconds left, but King kept the ball alive, and Jordan Davis wound up with it. He was fouled and hit one of two free throws for a 55-53 lead with 1.9 seconds left.

Cedarburg inbounded the ball to Diener, who let fly with the shot that would have won the state title and made him a tournament legend alongside Lamont Weaver, whose fullcourt heave in 1969 helped Beloit force overtime and eventually win the state title over Neenah in double overtime. The shot looked for a while like it might just go in but hit the backboard to the right of the hoop.

"I thought it had a chance," John Diener said, "but that's the way it goes."

Cedarburg gave itself a chance in the game by playing a more deliberate tempo in the first half, limiting possessions and preventing the athletic Red Raiders from getting out in the open court.

"We played the type of game we needed to play," coach Diener said, "controlling the tempo. We wanted to make it more of a halfcourt game, be deliberate on offense. We had some unforced turnovers, and you can't have those. Defensively, we also had a good strategy. The game went the way we wanted, but the result didn't work out."

Diener hit a pair of 3-point shots, and Barber and Johnson each one to stake the Bulldogs to an 18-15 lead, but Central ended the first half with 6 straight points for the 21-18 lead. King then went on his big run to start the second half.

"We got down, but we fought back," coach Diener said. "That's what we have done all year. I am so proud of these guys. We had a heck of a run and a heck of a season."

Diener sets records

John Diener finished the tournament with records for single-game scoring (46 points), tournament scoring (71 points) and single-game field goals made (16). He also made himself one of the frontrunners for next season's Mr. Basketball award.

"He was a great test," said King, who guarded Diener for much of the game. "He is so fundamentally sound, has great footwork and makes great shot fakes. He got me up in the air a few times."

Johnson finished his high school career with 13 points, and Barber added 11 for the Bulldogs, who netted 11 of 18 from long range on the evening. Jared Short collected five assists and took a couple more charges on defense, again showing the bulldog mentality that served this team so well.

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