Verona basketball players celebrate after defeating Mukwonago in the WIAA Division 1 championship game Saturday night at the Resch Center.
ASHWAUBENON — The Verona girls basketball team would not be denied.
The Wildcats overcame an eight-point, second-half deficit and accomplished their season-long goal Saturday night at the Resch Center.
Verona rallied to defeat Mukwonago 52-46 in the WIAA Division 1 championship game — giving the Wildcats their first state title in their first appearance in the championship contest.
“I’m just kind of in shock,” Verona coach Angie Murphy said. “Not that we won, but the overwhelming feeling of winning a state championship and how proud I am of these girls. They never, ever stopped battling, even when we got down eight.
“It’s been such a pleasure to coach them. I hate seeing it come to an end, especially with the seven seniors. But if it has to come to an end, this is by far the best way to do it.”
The Wildcats also claimed the gold ball while playing in honor of their late teammate, Ebony Nettles-Bey, whose dream had been to get to the state tournament and win a championship.
“It’s just so amazing,” Verona junior forward Alex Luehring said. “She always talked about it. …. She just wanted it so bad, so it just feels so good that we could do it for her.”
Luehring, a UW-Green Bay recruit, led Verona (25-3) with 18 points.
Senior Grace Mueller sank two free throws with 58.6 seconds left to put Verona ahead 48-43 and made two more to give the Wildcats a 50-46 lead with 32.4 seconds left. Junior guard Alley Johnson made two more free throws — putting Verona ahead 52-46 with 12.1 seconds left.
Senior guard Bre Cera, an Iowa recruit, led Mukwonago (24-4) with 25 points and nine rebounds.
Cera scored the first 13 points of the game for Mukwonago, sparking the Indians to a 20-19 halftime lead.She said she felt more confident when the Indians took a 29-21 lead to begin the second half, but added: “In the state championship, you can never feel comfortable. Things can change like they did. It was a great battle the whole time. We just fell short.”
Verona battled back from that deficit. Luehring scored, senior guard Heather Rudnicki made two free throws and Mueller converted two baskets, pulling Verona into a 29-all tie with 10:32 remaining.
“As a team, we just look at each other and we know,” said Mueller, a University of Wisconsin recruit who scored 12 points. “We just know when we need to pick it up.”
Senior guard Cheyenne Trilling — wearing the No. 10 uniform in honor of Nettles-Bey, who lost her two-year battle with cancer Nov. 25, 2015 — and Luehring sank 3-pointers, putting Verona ahead 42-40. Senior forward Kira Opsal scored inside to give Verona a 46-42 lead with 2:21 left.
Things got interesting in the first half after Trilling made a 3-pointer to cut Mukwonago’s lead to 8-7 with 13:29 remaining.
Mukwonago coach Rick Kolinske, hoping to pull Verona out of its zone, had his team go to a four-corner offense with freshman guard Grace Beyer dribbling near midcourt. Murphy told her team to stay in the zone, clapping encouragement. The Mukwonago and Verona partisans began to boo, each unhappy with the opposing team’s strategy.
Finally, after about 3½ minutes, Mukwonago relented at 9:52 and started to run its offense. Cera missed a shot at 9:20 and Luehring promptly sank a 3-point shot, giving Verona a 10-8 lead with 8:58 left.
Kolinske said he wanted to see what Verona would do defensively. “It takes two teams to stall,” he said. “They have a choice to sit in a zone.”
Said Murphy: “We’ve seen it before. To me, it’s not basketball, when you do it that early in a game. I could see it at the end of a game. It gave the girls energy: This guy doesn’t think they can beat us. … Mukwonago is a heck of a team. But if he wanted to sit there for the whole half, we would have let him.”