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Maybe there was a guardian angel watching over the Franklin girls basketball team the three days of the Sabers' eighth annual Christine Rathke Memorial Tournament.

Or maybe it was just that Rathke, who was an unstoppable force of nature in her playing days, had some of her trademark focus, passion and confidence rub off on this year's crop of players — maybe some of her greatness, too.

Because the Sabers finished off a remarkable three-day run by claiming the tourney title when they held off a previously unbeaten Kenosha St. Joseph's team, 61-60, on Dec. 30.

'I can't say enough about what this tournament means to me,' said Saber coach Tony Kathrens. 'Her spirit runs through this gym, and I have no doubt that she was here today.

'It was a beautiful display.'

Rathke, the program's best player in history, died in an auto accident 12 years ago. Her name and legacy is often used to inspire players in the program from youth through high school.

The championship earned Wednesday was just the second for the Sabers in the history of the eight-team event, which drew state-ranked teams in St. Joe's, Oshkosh Lourdes and Middleton and is widely considered the deepest girls tourney in the state.

Franklin defeated Milwaukee King, 71-67, in the quarterfinals on a snowy Dec. 28 and then edged Germantown, 66-63, in the semifinals on Dec. 29.

'I think in the end, we just wanted to make her (Rathke) proud,' said senior guard Abby Schauer who was named to the all-tournament team. 'It feels good. It's for her, not for us.'

But Kathrens, who spoke of Rathke's focus, passion, confidence and greatness, thought this group, which was once 2-3 and is now 7-4, can embrace this title and run with it in the second half of the season.

'It's not whether these girls can succeed, i's whether they believe that the shot they take will go in the basket,' he said. 'If they believe, they can accomplish anything they want to.'

Including hanging on in a championship game that became much closer at the end than it actually was.

The Sabers took a 27-25 lead at the break and would never trail in the second half against the state D4-ranked Lancers (8-1).

A basket by senior guard Starletta Keene (17 points) tied the score for St. Joe's at 40-40 with 8:04 left, but then the Sabers went on a 7-0 run, keyed by a hoop from Eva Oklobdzija and two free throws from tourney MVP Carly Graverson, to take a 47-40 lead with 5:29 left.

Franklin took advantage of a quickness advantage over the Lancers, getting a couple of their key people in foul trouble, including 6-4 junior forward and NCAA D1 recruit Sidney Cooks (18 points), as well as 6-0 senior forward Jalah Harris (16 points).

As a result, they would enjoy an enormous advantage at the foul line, hitting 28 of 37 free throws on the day as compared to just five of 10 for St. Joe's.

They also used a variety of zone defenses throughout the game to stifle the much taller St. Joe's squad.

Many of Franklin's charity tosses came in the final minutes, as though Cooks fouled out with 3:14 left, and Franklin enjoyed a 58-51 lead with just 50 seconds to go. St. Joe's would just not quit, though.

Harris hit a putback to make it 58-53 with 37 seconds to go. After a Madison Schell free throw pushed the lead back up to 59-53, Rachel Jenewein rattled home a 3-pointer for the Lancers to cut the deficit to 59-56 with 23 seconds left.

Schauer hit one of two free throws with 21 seconds left to make it 60-56. At that point, however, the Sabers were short-handed themselves as Graverson had fouled out with about a minute to go.

'That was a long last couple of minutes,' Schauer said. 'It seemed like it was going off just three seconds at a time.'

Keene then drained two free throws with 11 seconds left to cut the deficit to 60-58. Schauer couldn't quite clinch the game as she hit one of two free throws with 7.9 seconds to go, leaving the Sabers with a 61-58 lead.

But by that time, the Lancers were out of timeouts and they had to rush the ball up the court. They got a lay-up with about two seconds left, but the clock ran out before St. Joe's could force a turnover.

Graverson, who led Franklin with 16 points, said the Sabers are feeling much better about themselves right now. They have become much tighter as a unit since the low point, a frustrating loss to rival Oak Creek on Dec. 15.

'We're a lot closer than we have been,' she said. 'We've actually become friends rather than just teammates. We're all going to a 'White Elephant' (unwanted Christmas present) party after this.'

Schauer, who added 15 points, feels this title might actually earn the Sabers some respect.

'We've never been ranked; we always seem to be the underdog,' she said. 'So we just went into these games with nothing to lose. It feels great to win it like this.'

Senior forward Sarah Neumann added 11 points for the Sabers.

In his closing remarks, Kathrens thanked the Rathke family, who showed up en masse for today's game. They helped spread some of Christine's spirit around.

He also thanked his players for finally starting to believe.

'They're starting to play at a higher level, finally starting to find themselves,' he said.

But even with that belief in tow, he is amazed at what has happened these last few days.

'Compared to where we were before these last few days, I'm shocked, just shocked,' he said with a big smile on his face.