With its best player and Western Illinois recruit Michelle Farrow limited to the role of team motivator for much of the second half of the season because of a knee injury, the Waukesha West girls basketball team looked for leadership among its youthful ranks Saturday in its WIAA regional final against formidable Germantown.
Tje Wolverines found it. In came in the likes of senior forward Lizzy Connors who had 26 points, freshman point guard Dani Rhodes, who had 22 fearless points (including 11 of 13 from the foul line) and sophomore forward Katy Walz, who contributed 13.
It all led to a little bit of history being made as the Wolverines showed some maturity and claimed their first-ever regional championship with a harder-than-it-looks 73-54 decision over the visiting Warhawks.
West used fast starts in both halves and a critical push in the fourth quarter to pull away from the hard-charging and fast-paced Germantown squad. The Wolverines advanced to Thursday's sectional semifinal against conference rival Arrowhead at Kettle Moraine.
"We've had some problems with fading a little bit down the stretch recently," said first-year West coach Mark Busalacchi, "but I told the girls tonight that that was not an option."
"We felt we let the conference (Classic 8) slip a little bit (losing the final two regular season games to fall into second place), and without Michelle, a young team became younger than just about anyone else out there. But she shows up to practice and really helps us out.
"Because of what happened to her, we had to re-invent ourselves, and I think we were able to do that tonight."
West (19-5) split during the regular season with Arrowhead, which took a 4-point decision from the Wolverines on Feb. 14.
Meanwhile, Germantown saw its seven-game winning streak and its fine season come to an end at 18-6. Coach Matt Stuve was clearly dismayed as the Warhawks could not hit the proverbial broad side of the barnt, either from the field (14 of 75 for 19 percent) or from the line (21 of 38 including a critical 11 of 22 in the first half).
"We were definitely out of character to start the way we did in both halves," he said. "It seemed that we were a little tentative on both ends of the floor, and that's not the way we normally like to play.
"We tried to fight back, but when the easy things -- lay-ups and free throws -- don't go in, it increases the pressure on other aspects of your game and makes it that much harder to come back."
The Warhawks, bothered by West's length advantage (6-4, 5-11, 5-11 in the starting line-up), couldn't buy a basket in the first quarter, and West never trailed. It was 9-1 before Courtney Mehring hit a 3-pointer for the only basket of the period.
It reached 19-5 before a small run of four Germantown free throws closed the gap to 19-9. Busalacchi said the Warhawks' press and run style was not unpalatable to his Wolverines.
"I felt going in that that style played into what we like to do," he said.
The Warhawks battled back in the second quarter, going inside hard and drawing a large number of fouls, but they did not help themselves by hitting only five of 14 charity tosses in the period, including two separate players missing back-to-back free throws.
Still, they were able to force 12 turnovers out of West in the session, and when Mehring hit another three with 54 seconds left, it was tied at 28.
Rhodes hit one of two free throws with 39 seconds left in the half to give the Wolverines a 29-28 advantage going into the break.
West would never trail again.
"In that second quarter, I felt we slipped back into certain (bad) things," said Busalacchi. "So at the break we talked about how do you make that pass in this situation? How do you break that press?
"...And we were able to follow that because we have such gamers on this team, such competitors. We have kids like that all over the court."
The Wolverines were able to put the Warhawks in a hole again at the start of the third,with a high-low play to Connors just 12 seconds in and that resulted in a three-point play.
Following four Germantown misses, Walz hit a 3-pointer from the wing, and when Rhodes hit one of two free throws, it was 36-28 just 1:25 into the third.
Shortly thereafter, the gap reached 12 points on a runner by Connors.
Taylor Higginbotham hit a three from the wing and notched a lay-up after a steal to close the gap to 48-43 going into the fourth.
When the Warhawks' Maggie Johnston hit a drive with 7:08 left in the game, it was 49-45 West, but just like that, the youthful Wolverines (two freshmen and sophomores in the starting line-up) found their backbone.
They outscored Germantown 12-2 over the next four minutes to push the advantage to an insurmountable 61-47 with 3:43 remaining.
A critical three by Rhodes and two big hoops by Connors keyed the run.
"Dani just has the ability to get huge shots off when we need them," said Busalacchi.
The first-year coach couldn't say enough about his defense, which bent but never broke against the relentless Warhawks.
"We've been playing a lot of good man defense lately," he said. "We contest shots and rebound and we needed to do that tonight, because they have such good athletes over there (at Germantown). They just worked so hard to stay in the game. You really had to give it to them for their ability to make us work for this."
Stuve, whose team was led by Higginbotham with 13 points while Mehring and Bridget Kelley had 11 apiece, gave the credit right back to the Wolverines.
"The thing is, we didn't do a lot of the little things well," he said, "and when you have two 18-5 teams playing, it's the team that will do the little things better that will prevail. West did that."
And afterward, the prevailing Wolverines happily milled around the West fieldhouse, showing off the regional championship plaque to anyone who would look at it.
"We had the varsity boys come in and help us get ready for this weekend," said Busalacchi. "Get us ready for this kind of pressure. It was good to see us have a little success against it."