Can a team that has made the state tournament field four times in the last 11 years really fly under the radar?
If you're the Franklin girls basketball squad that is the perception as despite three easy wins in a row the Sabers were getting no love from area pundits.
But Franklin put on a good lobbying effort Tuesday night, as it blew a 15-2 first quarter lead, but rallied and held off visiting Oak Creek, 41-32.
"I think we just told everyone that we're for real," said Franklin coach Tony Kathrens. "Oak Creek is the measuring stick that verifies where we are in a given season, where we need to be. We've been to state four times, we've been an established program in the area, but sometimes I think that gets forgotten."
Junior guard Jenny Eickhorst, whose two breakaway lay-ups, including a three-point play in the last 45 seconds clinched the game, also thinks so.
"This is a good solid start for us," she said, "because I know in a lot of circles people look at us as an underdog."
With the win, the Sabers are 4-0 overall and 2-0 in Southeast play while Oak Creek is 4-2 and 1-2, respectively.
"For us to come all the way back like we did was impressive," said Knight coach Steve Hluchnik, whose team actually grabbed a one-point lead for a brief moment in the fourth quarter, "but in the last few minutes I think we just ran out of gas. But give Franklin credit, they outhustled us and buried us in that first quarter."
Hluchnik burned through three time-outs in that first period trying to quiet a lightning-fast Sabers attack that scored 15 points in a three-minute span.
"The last thing I told them before coming out (onto the floor) was that we couldn't give up any transition points to them," said Hluchnik. "We usually only give up a couple of buckets like that a game, but here, we gave up 12 in the first quarter alone. I was going to burn through all of them (the time-outs) if I needed to."
Franklin point guard Cassidy Mihalko scored seven of those points in that run.
But following the last of Oak Creek's time-outs, the Knights got the message, as they became much more aggressive in the half-court defense and forced the quicker but much smaller Sabers well out onto the perimeter.
"We can be quick in the half-court," said Hluchnik, "but we can't hope to keep up with them in a full-court game."
With that change in attitude, the game quickly ground to a halt, as the Knights got the Sabers to play their way. Unfortunately for Oak Creek, the lid still remained tight on the bucket and turnovers (seven in the second quarter) remained a problem.
But they still managed a 9-0 run late in the second period, with sophomore center Stephanie Kostowicz getting six of them.
The margin was 21-13 at the break.
Kathrens, whose team faded late in a key game against the Knights last season had to keep reminding his squad that in the words of World War II President Franklin Roosevelt, they had "nothing to fear but fear itself."
"You shouldn't be afraid of Oak Creek or anybody else, the only ones you should be afraid of are yourselves," he said, "so just go out and play."
Franklin was a little more aggressive in the second half, but with Mihalko battling foul trouble (she finished with four fouls), the Sabers were having trouble with the Knights.
It got to 21-19 at the third quarter on a basket by Oak Creek junior guard Morgan Kokta, but then the Sabers were able to bring the lead back to 28-23 at the end of the third on the strength of a drive by senior forward Kayla Plath.
But the Knights made one more concerted push, scoring the first six points of the fourth quarter. When sophomore forward Tamya Sims hit a lay-up off an in-bounds pass with 5:34 left, Oak Creek had its only lead at 29-28.
Franklin's Montana Mack then hit one of two free throws to tie the score seven seconds later and when Mihalko hit a leaner with 4:52 remaining, it was 31-29 Franklin and the Sabers would never trail again.
Oak Creek's Kokta hit two free throws to tie the score at 31 just a few seconds later after Mihalko committed her fourth foul.
However, those would be the last points for the Knights for over four minutes.
Meanwhile, Mihalko would sit for just 1:14. When she came back in, Eickhorst hit two free throws to put Franklin up for good with 3:46 to go. Just over a minute later, Mack hit two more charity tosses to make it 35-31.
A short time later, Eickhorst hit her two lay-ups and that was the ballgame.
"'We knew that we had to come out ready to play," said Eickhorst. "They're so tough. We knew we had to be ready to give them a battle. When they came back at us, we had to keep thinking and acting like it was still OK."
"This is an important win for us. It gives us a good solid start."
Sims led Oak Creek with nine as Kostowicz had eight, while Mihalko led Franklin with 11 while Mack had 10 and Eickhorst eight.
"We missed a couple of lay-ups and they hit their free throws (down the stretch)," said Hluchnik. "That was the difference. We're six games in. At 4-2, we know we could be better, but we also know that we could be much worse."
Kathrens knows the importance of this victory.
"I knew with the level of coaching sagacity over on that side (Hluchnik), I knew there was no way that we could keep a lead like that, but I'm just glad we came out on top," he said.
"It's huge. They beat De Pere (pre-season number one in the state), so to beat them is really something."
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