When in doubt, rely on the defense.
That's what Oak Creek girls basketball coach Steve Hluchnik and his top-ranked in state crew had to do Friday night against archrival Franklin before a packed house on their opponents' home court.
Facing a smaller, but stubborn foe, the Knights couldn't get the ball inside to its twin towers of senior posts Stephanie Kostowicz and Tamya Sims, and trailed 18-15 at the half.
It was a physical, messy game that even the peach basket-loving Dr. Naismith couldn't have liked.
But then they started using their height advantage (three starters over six feet as opposed to none for the Sabers) to great effect. They scored the first 10 points of both the third and fourth quarters and then denied the Sabers the basket in the most vehement way possible (they were approximately five of 28 for the half).
The result was a Houdini-like 45-33 escape for Oak Creek.
"The defense helped keep us in the game," said Hluchnik. "We were able to use our 1-3-1 (zone) well. Even when we weren't playing well (offensively), it saved us."
"But we had it (a height advantage) and we didn't use it offensively in the first half. ...We have good 3-point shooters, but we couldn't settle for them like we did in the first half. In the second half, we started getting it inside to our posts."
"I didn't tell them we couldn't shoot the threes, but we had to at least get the ball into the post once (on each possession)."
In the end, his posts did do the job as Kostowicz, active inside and at the line, led all scorers with 17 points, and Sims overcame a quiet first half (two points) to finish with 13.
Kathrens could only shrug his shoulders and agree with Hluchnik's assessment.
"All credit to them," he said. "Those two (the posts) got hot in the second half and then it was lights out. They played that 1-3-1 well. I thought we worked it well, but we couldn't find the open player and then the speed of the game picked up and their athleticism took over."
With the win, Oak Creek improved to 3-0 in Southeast Conference play and 6-0 overall while Franklin fell to 2-1 and 4-1, respectively.
The Sabers, using a stubborn zone of their own, built their first half lead by scoring the last six points of the half including a 3-pointer by Kristen Mahan.
The frustrated Hluchnik even picked up a technical with five seconds left in the half, as his Knights went scoreless over the last 2:28 of the first session.
All that changed in the third quarter, as a Kostowicz putback and a Sims press break lay-up gave the Knights the lead for good. They would stretch it out to 25-18 on another Sims press break hoop before guard Taylor Schell finally got Franklin on the board in the second half with a 3-pointer with just 35 seconds left in the third.
Oak Creek led 27-23 going into the fourth.
The fourth began the same as the third, as Kostowicz hit two free throws, Hannah Settingsgaard hit a fastbreak lay-up and then Kostowicz drained one of two free throws to make it 32-23 with 6:56 left in the game.
Kathrens called a time-out at that point but the die was cast. Sims hit two free throws and then Settingsgaard hit a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 37-23 with 4:47 left.
The lead would reach 18 points in the waning minutes and could have been more, as the Knights were just 17 of 30 at the foul line. They missed two free throws at a crack five different times in the game.
Kathrens said his team couldn't build enough momentum when it had the advantage.
"The difference between this year and last year's team is that we could build energy on made shots (last season)," said Kathrens. "We couldn't get eniough of those tonight and then we expended all our energy (on defense).
"...and they're tough (the Knights). You don't get them down early and keep them down, they'll find a way to beat you."
Paige Bobos had eight points, Montana Mack seven and Carly Graverson six for the Sabers.
Meanwhile, Hluchnik, whose team lost a frustrating season-ending sectional semifinal to the Sabers last March, was happy to get out of Dodge with a win.
"This wasa good win," he said. "We faced some adversity and the kids played through it. Franklin was ready to play at the start, but fortunately, we were the better team in the second half."
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