The word of the day for Franklin girls basketball coach Tony Kathrens leading into his team's appearance in the championship game of its own Rathke Memorial Tournament Saturday was really the only one that could be chosen just before the Sabers won the event for the first time in its five-year history with a 68-57 decision over Middleton.
"Coach told us it was 'Christine (Rathke)'," said senior forward and event MVP Cassidy Mihalko, "and it means a lot. She played here and put so much heart and effort into the program. Winning it like this means it all."
Rathke, the school's all-trime leading scorer and symbol of the program's powerful continuing surge from the mid-1990s on, had the tourney named in her honor after she died tragically about six years ago.
"And I see the Rathke family over there (in the far stands)," said Kathrens as he was giving out awards after the game, "and I continue to be inspired by their presence."
An inspiration that carried the Sabers through the powerful three-day grind of the tournament, one of the finest girls' hoops events in the state. They had to beat Oshkosh Lourdes (on Thursday) and Arrowhead (on Friday) in order to meet Middleton on Saturday.
Middleton (5-4) won the Rathke in its first year in 2008 and was state runner-up in 2011.
The Sabers (7-2) had to become inspired as they fell behind by 12 midway through the first half before putting on a rally that cut the margin to 28-26 at the break. Kathrens also had Franklin swap its 1-3-1 defense for a more aggressive man set, which he found sped up the game, much to the Saber players' delight.
"We really fought back," he said, "and switching from a zone to man really helped. They were having a great deal of success getting around us using skip passes, but we gained more energy going to a man. We were able to impose our will."
That they did, as they turned the halftime deficit into a 46-42 advantage by the end of the third period.
They clung to a lead throughout the fourth, but not without some powerful resistance from the Cardinals. In the last three minutes Middleton was able to cut the lead down to six three times, the first time on two free throws from Shannon McCauley with 2:14 remaining.
A frenzy of events ensued marked by some clutch play that Rathke herself would have been proud of. After the Cardinals missed two free throws that could have cut the margin to four with 1:57 left, the Sabers turned the ball right back, only to have Middleton return the favor.
Franklin then rushed a shot and the Cardinals looked to push it forward, but Mihalko intercepted the pass on the far sideline. She got the ball to guard Nala Mudd, who was fouled and drained two charity tosses with 1:03 left to make it 61-53.
A quick bucket by the Cardinals got the margin back down to six with 52 seconds left, but then the Sabers ran a nifty inbounds play from right in front of their bench as all-tournament team member Jenny Eickhorst hit a slashing Mihalko cutting down the lane to score what would prove to be the clinching lay-up with 42 seconds to go.
In the final seconds, Franklin would hit five of six free throws.
"We just went into the lockerroom at halftime and fired each other up," said Eickhorst. "We'd had an amazing day yesterday (beating Arrowhead), but we needed to step it up today."
Kathrens said the Sabers are now freeing themselves from the memory of an early tough loss to area and conference rival Oak Creek. He said he simplified the offense, making it easier for the press and attack Sabers to get into a flow.
"We're just running the offense far more easily now," said Mihalko. "We drive and kick. We weren't hitting shots in the first half, but in the second, they started to drop."
Franklin would hit seven three-pointers in the contest, including two each by Eickhorst and Katie Nord.
Mihalko led the Sabers with 20 points including all seven of her free throw attempts (Franklin was a sound 17 of 22 from the line on the night) while Nord had 13, and Eickhorst and Mudd scored 11 each.
Middleton junior forward Liz McMahon led all scorers with 21.
Kathrens was very happy to take the team trophy home for the first time. Something Beaver Dam had done in 2009, Pius XI in 2010 and Nicolet in 2011.
He was especially happy to do it for the Rathkes and for Christine's memory.
"I knew Christine and what she represented to this court, this school," he said. "She was everything that was good about Franklin basketball. That's why her name was our word today."
"And she would have loved playing teams like this. We want to play Middleton, we want to play Nicolet (2011 state champ). I'm really happy that we were able to do this against such a talented field."
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