The idea of the Homestead girls basketball team as a one-player team is on the ropes.
The thought that Highlanders rise and fall strictly on the strength of powerful all-state forward Chloe Marotta received a stern test Friday, Feb. 17, in the Highlanders' North Shore Conference-closing 44-36 victory against Whitefish Bay.
Marotta picked up her second foul at the 11:02 mark of the first half with the Highlanders up 10-6, and was almost immediately pulled for fear of a third.
Coach Corey Wolf said she was ready to put Marotta back in at a moment's notice but then one moment passed, and then another, and soon it was halftime, and the Highlanders, behind sophomore guard Grace Crowley and a harassing, intense pressure defense, had expanded their lead to 29-12.
The Blue Dukes rallied in the second half to cut the lead to five as Marotta would eventually foul out, scoring only five points in the process, by far her lowest output of the season.
But again Crowley stepped up, as the Highlanders, nursing a 39-34 lead, forced two turnovers. Crowley followed that with two free throws with 3:43 left and then a driving lay-up with 2:37 left. She squeezed through an impossibly small space for the shot as Homestead earned an insurmountable 43-34 lead.
For Wolf, a veteran coach who has been struggling to find balance on her Highlanders all season, it was all a welcome sight.
"I took a chance in the first half," she said, "because I told Chloe to be ready to go back in, but we kept stretching the lead and I just kept her on the bench. GC (as Crowley is known on the team) really stepped up. And when we got towards the end, she just took control. They (the Blue Dukes) spread us out and that really opened up some gaps for her. She can really make it through some tiny spaces. I haven't coached a girl who can squeeze through such small gaps like that."
The victory was the Highlanders' sixth in a row and clinched a tie for second in the North Shore with Cedarburg at 11-3. They are 15-6 overall.
Meanwhile, Bay finished its regular season at 8-6 in league play and 13-9 overall
Crowley was just happy to help.
"We were able to start fast," she said, "and it was mostly our defense that did it. We were able to get up on them and really pressure the ball."
As the Highlanders prepare for the WIAA playoffs this weekend, Marotta said she's happy to see such progress and know that she doesn't necessarily have to score 30 or 40 points in order for the team to win.
"At the beginning of the season, we still had so many players who were so young," she said, "but as we started winning, they started gaining confidence. Some of them are starting to hit shots, too."
That was apparent early on, as after Marotta's second foul, Crowley scored seven consecutive points for the Highlanders and increased the lead to 17-6. Then Ally Rilling hit both a post shot and a 3-pointer to to make it 22-8. The advantage maxed out at 25-8 with 5:57 left in the half. The Highlanders' pressure defense contributed to the success, forcing turnovers and not allowing the Blue Dukes to get into their offense.
'Their defense set the tone in the first half," said Bay coach Jon Schneider. "It took us until the second half to figure it out and in the end, it proved to be too big a hole to dig out of. A little too late."
"Even when they broke our press, they would have to reset their offense and that would allow us to reset our defense," said Wolf. "It was a great defensive effort in the first half."
But Bay tried to come back. The Blue Dukes limited the Highlanders fast-break opportunities in the second half as Homestead went close to nine minutes without a field goal. Forward Ellie Clements (18 points) heated up as her three-point play and a free throw by post Mia Brower closed it to 39-34 with 5:48 left.
The Blue Dukes could draw no closer. Successive turnovers were followed by Crowley's big free throws and lay-up as Homestead again stretched out the lead.
"We didn't lay down in the second half, we kept fighting," Schneider said. "I'm proud of how we responded. Though this game didn't mean much for the (WIAA) playoffs, we kept playing. I believe how we played in the second half can set a tone for how we want to play in the playoffs."
Meanwhile, the Highlanders have sent a message that they are more than a one-woman band and they intend to keeping moving in that direction.
"I think we're still getting better," said Wolf. "Our inexperienced players have had a full season of play and their intensity level has risen. They've become more confident, that's the big thing for us."
"It's great for everyone to step up," added Marotta.