Fortunately for the Slinger Owls, it isn’t where you start; it’s where you finish.
Slinger’s upstart girls basketball team advanced to the WIAA Division 2 regional final by knocking off Grafton, 42-30, in the semis on Friday night.
Fourth-seeded Slinger (17-6, 10-4 Wisconsin Little Ten Conference) overcame a sluggish start, and when the shots weren’t falling, relied on its inside game to overcome No. 5-seeded Grafton’s superior experience.
In Saturday night’s regional final, Slinger will meet undefeated No. 1-seeded Beaver Dam (23-0) for the third time this season. Beaver Dam has beaten all of its opponents this season by double digits, including a two wins over the Owls by scores of 76-55 and 61-47 in December and January.
“There’s not much to say about Beaver Dam,” Slinger head coach Tony Dobson said. “They’re good. They do just about everything well. It’s an explosive offense. Hopefully, we bring our best.”
But the Owls had to stage a comeback just to get another chance. Slinger trailed Grafton at the break, 19-12, after Grafton’s Chloe Doring drilled a triple in the waning seconds of the first half, but Slinger emerged from the locker room looking like a different team.
The Owls utilized a 15-0 run to storm out to a 29-21 advantage midway through the second half. The Owls dominated the second half, 30-11.
“It’s really just about doing anything I can to make my teammates better,” Slinger sophomore forward CaSandra Warmsly said.
Warmsly, who averaged 5.6 points per game this season, led with a game-high 15 points and dominated Grafton in the paint.
“I didn’t expect that kind of game. We usually play pretty well on offense, but you always have to be ready to step up when the team needs you.”
Slinger junior guard Emily Rothenhoefer, typically the team’s leading scorer, agreed.
“We typically can score a lot of points, and we’re a very good shooting team.” Rothenhoefer said. “But I did kind of expect this a little bit. Grafton plays a much more physical, kind of slower style than we’re used to. So it was a bit of adjustment for us and we struggled a bit in the first half with it.”
Both teams were characterized by prolonged periods of streaky play. The Black Hawks made it interesting with a 7-0 run of their own to pull within 29-28, but Slinger doubled down with another 13-0 stretch in the closing five minutes to put the game out of reach.
In addition to Warmsly’s effort, junior forward Kylah Schmidt’s 6 points helped the duo combine for half of Slinger’s 42 points. That was especially important in a game that was played almost exclusively in the paint, with each team hitting just one three-point basket.
“That was not really something I expected,” Dobson said. “We’ve been a strong offensive team. We just flat-out were not hitting shots. It was sort of strange to see how slow the first half was being played.”
While Grafton (12-11, 6-8 North Shore Conference) outshot Slinger from the free-throw line, 78 percent to 62 percent, the opportunities from the line were another problem for the Black Hawks. Grafton’s nine attempts paled in comparison to Slinger’s 21.
“It’s not an excuse,” Grafton head coach Mike Grzesiak said. “You don’t always get the calls. We had opportunities and unfortunately couldn’t take advantage of them. But I’m proud of the way we battled.”
Doring led Grafton with 12 points. Lexi Hilgart and Hannah Belanger each added eight. Rothenhoefer, who scored nine for Slinger, said it would take more than that to pull off an upset Saturday night.
“Beaver Dam is a very tough team,” she said. “We’ll get a lot of rest tonight and come back ready.”