It was a comfortable lead for the Oak Creek boys basketball team Tuesday night against nonconference foe South Milwaukee.
The Knights had stifled the Rockets to the tune of a 25-10 first-half lead, and in the first couple of minutes of the second session, it had expanded to 29-10.
But that's when more than a few minutes of inconsistency set in — things such as unforced turnovers, unguarded 3-point shooters and poor shot selection — and before anyone could blink an eye, South Milwaukee had gone on a 16-0 run and squeezed what had been a laugher for the Knights into a pair of jeans two sizes too small at 29-26 with 8:58 to go.
However, the senior-dominated Knights remembered how they got to 10-2 overall in the first place. Guard Joey Zietlow hit forward Jakup Sinani with a nifty pass for an easy layup, and then Sinani hit a hustle play putback. That was the beginning of a 9-0 run that made it 38-26 with 5:26 to go and allowed the Knights to finally breath easy in a 46-32 victory.
"I believe we had something like 10 turnovers in the second half," said coach Mike Jossie. "That's just unacceptable. We tightened up a little there in the second half. We're still learning how to play when its close, how to build leads, finish games and practice hard for two hours."
Because like many, many coaches, Jossie believes in the idea that if you practice hard, you'll play hard.
It's something his star, forward Drew Yetka who had 13 points this night, believes in, too.
"It's something we're working on," he said. "Get a consistent effort for a whole practice, a whole game. Put together a full (two-hour) practice."
The Knights were coming off an important week — critical Southeast Conference victories over Racine Case and Kenosha Indian Trail — that kept them in a share of the league lead. They had followed a painful loss to co-league leader Racine Horlick on Jan. 6.
'It was a serious wake-up call," Yetka said.
And Jossie agreed.
"Those were two enormous wins, especially given what happened with the Horlick game (a 50-48 defeat)," he said.
The Knights will enter the game on Friday, Jan. 20, at Kenosha Bradford tied with Horlick at 5-1 in league play.
The South Milwaukee game was a good combination of tune-up and wake-up call.
The Oak Creek defense was sound enough in the first half to hold the Rockets to just 4-of-14 shooting from the field, and the Knights were confident in their offense that they felt it wise to run off the last 1:02 of the clock before Matt Kasar hit a jumper from the wing just before the buzzer to make it 25-10 Oak Creek.
After early second-half buckets from Yetka and Joey Zietlow made it 29-10, the Knights felt they were home free.
But they weren't, as the Rockets hit three 3-pointers and converted a three-point play en route to closing the gap to 29-26. After Jossie's second timeout of the sequence, Sinani got his two baskets, Nathan Luedtke hit a big 3-pointer and that was followed by a hoop from Zietlow. It was 38-26 with 5:26 to go, and the Oak Creek lead would never drop below 6 again. To seal the deal, the Knights hit 8 of 8 free throws in the final 49 seconds.
Guard Zach Lewkowski led South Milwaukee with 11 points, while Zietlow joined Yetke with 13 points in the scoring column and Luedtke and Sinani had 9 each.
"I was impressed with South Milwaukee," Jossie said. "They could have quit when we got them down big, but they kept battling. We just have to learn how to play for 36 minutes continuously. If we don't, we won't have a happy locker room very often."
Yetka, who has stepped into the very big leadership shoes of graduated two-time Now All-Suburban guard Harrison Cleary with a series of amazing efforts in the first half of the season, doesn't want anything like that happening anytime soon.
"I don't think any of this (the start) has surprised us," he said. "A lot of us have put in the work. I even gave up another sport so I could focus more time on basketball and in the gym. Our first goal is conference (a league title). Then we want to play well in nonconference games like this. They're also important."
But when asked about WIAA tournament play starting at the end of next month, Yetka slowed things down.
"We're not worried about that just yet," he said. "We want to have everything in order beforehand. One thing at a time."