From season’s start, it appeared inevitable the Middleton and Madison Memorial girls basketball teams would clash in a WIAA Division 1 sectional final.
Either Middleton would make a return to the state tournament after its gut-wrenching 50-49 loss to Bay Port in the final seconds of last season’s state title game or Memorial would qualify for the first time in program history.
But after dropping a 67-51 decision to Memorial in the teams’ first meeting Dec. 13, Middleton realized much work needed to be done. And the Cardinals followed the calm lead of longtime coach Jeff Kind in making their adjustments, notably on defense and in intensity level.
“They have been very good about just staying even-keeled,” Kind said. “I think there was a wake-up call early in the year with Madison Memorial. The first time we played them, they just showed up with a lot more intensity than us.
“From that moment on, the mindset changed, that we aren’t going to be able to kind of coast through things. And they have continued to work hard to improve every game.”
The Cardinals (25-1) never lost again after that first defeat to the Spartans, claiming two later victories over Memorial, which was without injured guard Mia Morel in those latter two games.
Middleton claimed a 77-68 home decision Jan. 31 and rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to edge Memorial 61-58 in a duel between Division 1’s top-ranked teams in the sectional final Saturday at Monona Grove.
The Cardinals cut down the net as their supporters celebrated, including several of the players’ fathers who recently have paid homage to the bearded, bespectacled Kind by wearing glasses and growing goatees.
“It means so much, especially for the seniors, because we were so close last year,” said Middleton senior forward Kendall Roquet, who has committed to UW-Whitewater for women’s basketball. “We are so happy that we get another shot at that.”
Saturday’s comeback sent top-ranked Middleton, which has won 20 consecutive games, back to state, where top-seeded Middleton will meet fourth-seeded Oconomowoc (22-4) at 6:35 p.m. Friday at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
“It is just amazing,” said Kind, a Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach. “It is like the ultimate goal. If you were scripting the season at the beginning of the season, you would have said it’s going to be Memorial and Middleton in the sectional final. You have two great teams and one of the teams is going to be disappointed.
“It doesn’t diminish (Memorial’s) season. And that would have been the approach I took — is that this doesn’t diminish all you did over the year. Sectional final games are the ultimate high school experience. The sectional final game, there is more pressure than the state games.”
Middleton advanced to state for the 12th time, including for the third time in four seasons. The Cardinals haven’t won a title, finishing second four times.
Second-seeded Bay Port (24-2), the defending champion, and third-seeded Milwaukee Divine Savior Holy Angels (23-3) play in the other semifinal at about 8:15 p.m. Friday.
A potential state title game rematch between Bay Port and Middleton is possible.
“I think the loss to Bay Port in the championship game was something that sticks in the back of the kids’ minds and was an incentive to try to get back there,” Kind said.
After its loss to Memorial early this season, senior forward Karina Bursac said the Cardinals knew they had to play a lot harder on defense in practice. They needed to pick up their defensive intensity for games, but they also had to run their offense against more aggressive defense in practice to simulate Memorial’s pressure, Bursac said.
“Defensively, we are much better,” Kind said. “Back at that point (after losing to Memorial), I didn’t feel really good about our defense. We got a lot better in man-to-man. That is probably the No. 1 thing. And secondly, we changed our offense a little bit and tried to accentuate our post players a little more. So, we have improved, and we are going to be talking about improving (this week).”
The Cardinals returned 6-foot-2 senior forward Sitori Tanin, a Loyola (Illinois) University commit, and core players such as seniors Bursac, Roquet, Josie Lemirande and Evie Coleman from last year’s team and added transfer McKenna Monogue, a versatile sophomore guard/forward. While close-knit, they still needed to become a cohesive team.
“We had to have confidence in ourselves and each other,” Roquet said. “We had to trust each other, knowing what we can accomplish and how well we play together as a team.”
Oconomowoc coach Bob Shea said his loose and confident team doesn’t think of itself as the underdog against Middleton.
“They are just a loose bunch of kids,” Shea said. “At the beginning of the year, I was trying to reel them in a little bit. Then I realized this is who they are. ... I don’t want them to play tonight. I want them to roll with what they’ve got. They are a loose group. That is why they are so much fun to be around.”
The Cardinals had to stay calm — just like Kind — after falling behind Memorial 37-24 at halftime Saturday.
“We weren’t going to panic,” Kind said. “You know, if I get all panicky, they are going to get all panicky. So, the locker room at halftime was really calm. It was, `We just have to do this, this and this better. … Try to keep all the emotions down and go about business.”
Said Roquet: “We play better when we are calm and relaxed, instead of having a lot of high energy and rushing things.”
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