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"Finish!"

It was a simple one-word message that second-year Franklin boys basketball coach Tyler Podoll wrote on a dry erase board with about 1:54 to go with his team nursing a 42-39 lead over archrival and Southeast Conference champion Oak Creek in a WIAA regional final March 4 at Oak Creek.

He waved it in front of his bench emphatically during a timeout, trying to make his point very clear.

The Sabers had taken a 38-37 lead on a 3-pointer by senior guard Marcus Lee with 7:41 to go and had played a good game of keep-away with the Knights, who had beaten the Sabers in two buzzer-beating regular-season games this season.

But that wasn't happening tonight.

Franklin took its coach's plea close to heart as the Sabers survived two missed front-end bonus free throws and got a critical interception of a pass with just 15 seconds left. Lee, who picked off that pass and led the Sabers with 20 points, calmly sank two free throws, and Franklin had the cushion it needed to win its first regional title in six years, 44-39.

"Finish, finish the last five minutes," said a gleeful Podoll afterward. "But to do that, we had to do things differently. We talked about taking the pressure off the kids. We coached differently than we did last night (a white-knuckle regional semifinal win over West Allis Central), but tonight, I emphasized to the guys that they had nothing to lose. I told them I was going to encourage them to take their shots. I was going to tell them 'Great job' over and over again. I asked them to take on the role of the coach. Take control of the game."

Lee said Podoll's positive reinforcement was huge.

"Coach is always talking about being relentless," Lee said. "Just be relentless. He's always tells us: 'Never stop, never stop playing.'"

That attitude carried the Sabers (18-6 overall) to their first regional title since 2011 and landed them in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9, at Racine Case against No. 2 seed Milwaukee Vincent (19-4). The winner will get the victor of top-seeded Brookfield Central (22-2) and Milwaukee Riverside (18-6) in the 1 p.m. sectional final Saturday, March 11, at West Allis Central with a state tournament berth on the line.

Meanwhile, the senior-dominated Knights (21-3) saw their school-record season come to a premature close. They simply could not make enough plays or hit enough shots (just 4-of-15 in the second half) to hold off the determined Sabers.

"We settled for 3s too often in the second half," said Oak Creek coach Mike Jossie. "We didn't go down low often enough. We still had some good looks, but they didn't go down. I also think we didn't grab an offensive rebound in the second half. You've got to give yourselves that extra possession."

Creek set its program record for wins with a gritty regional semifinal victory the night before against Marquette.

The game on Saturday, played before a large and noisy crowd at Oak Creek, was always close as it saw seven lead changes in the first half. Knight senior forward Drew Yetka hit a 3-pointer with 1:32 left to give Creek a 26-25 advantage going into the break. Yetka had 14 points at the break for Oak Creek and Lee 15 for Franklin.

Yetka came out of the break and hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 29-25 with 17:09 left, but that was the high-water mark for the Knights. They had held a 4-point lead once in the first half.

"We just couldn't extend it," Jossie said. "Get that one extra possession of cushion. We were just one possession away from some breathing room, but there is simply no breathing room against these guys."

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Junior forward Max Alba twice gave the Sabers the lead, first on a 2-pointer and then on a three with 9:57 to go. Junior guard Shamari Easley's drive tied the game for Oak Creek at 35-35 with 9:15 to go, but after Lee's three, the Knights could not regain the lead. In fact, after Yetka's two free throws with 7:33 to go (he was 10-for-10 on the night) cut the Franklin lead to 38-37, Oak Creek scored only 2 more points the rest of the game.

After the Sabers spread the floor for more than a minute, senior guard Ethan Wittenburg hit a driving layup with 4:55 to go to give Franklin a 40-37 cushion with 4:55 to go.

Creek senior guard Joey Zietlow scored the team's last points of the night with 2:12 to go on a steal and dunk to make it 40-39.

Shortly thereafter, Franklin junior guard Riley Clark hit two free throws to make it 42-39 with 1:54 to go. That's when Podoll grabbed his sign and wrote down his prophetic message.

"They didn't sub out a lot at all in the second half," he said. "We kept attacking, and I think we were them down."

Oak Creek had one critical turnover, but Franklin missed the front end of a bonus with 1:02 to go. A Knight 3-point try was off the mark, and again the Sabers missed a front end with 42 seconds left, but that's when Lee picked off the pass in the lane and waited to be fouled.

"We focused all week for the West Allis Central game," Lee said, "but we knew if we got Oak Creek that we would be ready. We were so ready."

Alba had 10 points to support Lee's 20. After Yetka's 23, Zietlow had 7 for the Knights.

It was frustrating for Jossie, as the Knights started five seniors in the loss.

"They're conference champs; you can't take that away from them," he said. "But give credit to Franklin for everything they did tonight. They worked hard. So did our kids."

For Podoll, who's working on building a consistently successful program at Franklin, this was an historic moment.

"I'm excited for the boys," he said. "They can now walk through the school and say they put something on the wall (the regional title plaque). They've been working non-stop for this since last April."

Lee agreed it was a moment to treasure.

"It's huge," he said. "We really needed this."

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