Maybe you can call this a coming of age story.
Flashy sophomore guard Tyler Herro may be the heart of the young and talented Whitnall boys basketball team, but junior forward Kevion Taylor is the soul.
With his team on the ropes in a fast-paced and entertaining WIAA D2 sectional final with Whitefish Bay at a packed Brown Deer Novak Family Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon, Taylor was seemingly everywhere, hitting putbacks, draining cold-blooded jumpers and calmly sinking key free throws.
He scored 12 of his game-high 28 points in the final three minutes, as the Falcons broke open a close game and earned their first state tournament berth since 2004 with a 79-70 victory.
"Kevion just would not be denied," said Falcon coach Steve Kujawa. "He got every piece of loose change out there. ...He's just been doing it the right way all season. Just such an under-rated player.
"He's a three-year starter and he just put us on his shoulders today."
For Taylor, it was just another day's work.
"It had gotten a little too close to be comfortable," he said, "...We had a talk at halftime. We were just going to bring it. We were not going to lose this game.
"And we made it a reality. We're going to state."
And then he looked around at all the people who had come onto the court to congratulate him and his teammates.
"...This is so much fun to be around. This team is a family," he said with a smile.
And as to emphasize that point, Kujawa had his players shake as many hands with fans as could be reasonably expected. Both Whitnall and Bay brought huge support with them and the Falcon backers happily wanted to share their joy with the players.
Kujawa also did his part by taking the sectional championship plaque to the security ropes in front of the Whitnall stands to soak in in the joyous roars.
The win improved the Falcons to 20-6 on the season and advanced them to a WIAA State D2 semifinal at 1:35 p.m. Friday, March 18 against Waunakee (24-2) at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Kujawa said he had an inkling of something special possibly happening during the practices before the first regional victory over Bay View.
"That was the 'ah-ha' moment for this group," he said. "We challenged them. We said 'This is the way we have to play.' We believed that our best basketball was still ahead of us.
"...Every single challenge we put in front of them, they met."
For Herro, the sophomore phenom who brought both Wisconsin coach Greg Gard and Marquette mentor Steve Wojciechowski to the contest, it's another step in an already sensational career that has him only 10 points short of 1,000 already.
"This means everything to me, to the team and the community," he said. "We've been working for this since we were little kids. Now we're here and it's great for everyone."
Except the Blue Dukes, who finished a sensational tournament run with a final mark of 16-9.
"We just couldn't get there at the end," said first-year Bay coach Chris Millner, whose team was looking for its first state berth since 2011. "We just couldn't get the stops we had to. We fought for the lead but we came up a little short, especially on the offensive boards.
"And they did a great job hitting their free throws."
Taylor handled the lion's share of the work on the boards down the stretch and got plenty of help defensively and at the foul line from his teammates.
In a back and forth game that saw the Blue Dukes take a 34-30 lead in the first half only to have that dissipate under a two for 13 shooting start to the second half, Bay senior forward Zach Casey scored on a fastbreak to give the Blue Dukes a 57-56 lead with 4:37 left.
Bay forced a turnover and had a chance to expand the lead, but then Herro deftly deflected a pass and cruised in for a lay-up at the 4:04 mark and a 58-57 advantage.
The Falcons would never trail again.
After a Bay turnover, Taylor knocked down one putback and then another a few seconds later.
"We had to find a way to put a body on them, but they just found a way," said Millner.
Taylor kept going as he was was fouled at the 2:38 mark and knocked down two free throws to make it 64-60.
Casey came up big again for the Blue Dukes with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 64-63 with 2:21 to go, but then the Falcons went on a decisive 8-0 run to clinch the game.
Taylor had a basket and three free throws in the run as Whitnall stretched the advantage to 72-63 with 1:08 left.
"Kevion just came up big time," Herro said. "He comes to work everyday. He just works so hard. A big shout out to him. He's a big reason we're going to Madison."
Whitnall would then hit 12 of 14 free throws in the final 2:38 to keep the Blue Dukes at arm's-length.
Kujawa knows that his team runs on the energy provided by Herro, who finished with 14 points and Taylor, but he said the senior "glue" players were sensational this day.
"I thought we had great defensive intensity down the stretch," he said, "and Darren (guard Thomas) had a big putback and Austin (guard Brault) came up big too. These kids just did not want to lose."
Brault had 16 points and set an early tone with some key buckets in the first few minutes. Fellow seniors Andrew Mixon and Thomas had six points each. Sophomore forward Daniel Alexopoulos, another part of the youth movement, added nine.
The Blue Dukes were led by guard Elijah Moore with 23 points, while Casey had 15, David Thompson 12 and Macklin Kortebein 11.
Millner was pleased that his squad stayed tenacious to the end.
"With the kids we have and the way we play we always had a chance this season," he said. "That's what was special about this group. With them, we always had a shot. You don't get groups like that too often."
Kujawa is happy that this team may have started peaking a little before everyone expected them to.
"This marks 30 years since our first state tournament berth," said Kujawa. "We went to state in 1986, in 1988 (winning a title) and 2004. Even number years must be very good for us (laughs)."
His players certainly believe so.
"This is an amazing experience," said Mixon. "We've been working for this since the beginning of the season. All the time practicing. All the time spent shooting in the yard.
"It's been a dream since I was young. I'm still letting it soak in."
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