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It was no use for Oak Creek girls basketball coach Steve Hluchnik the morning of March 5.

He couldn't sleep the night before the WIAA sectional final with defending D1 state champion DSHA so he roused himself at 4:30 a.m., and then for perspective, he made himself watch the tape of the Knights' 2015 sectional final loss to these same Dashers.

'I was just staring at the ceiling, so I thought I might as well get up,' he said, 'but only I looked at the tape; no way was I putting the kids through that again.'

That loss cost the 2014 D1 state champion Oak Creek team a berth in the state tournament as the Dashers went on to win the 2015 state crown.

But one thinks that if the Knights are in this same position next year, Hluchnik will have them watch the tape from this Saturday afternoon over and over again.

Because this tight, collective, willful group put in a trademark effort getting back at the Dashers in a 50-40 sectional final victory at West Allis Central that sent the Knights back to Green Bay and the WIAA state tournament.

'Two years ago, we won it (the state title), but last year we were so young,' Hluchnik said. 'We have only a couple of kids who were with us from the title team, but they learned about the process. It wasn't pretty, but we sure made some plays down the stretch.'

Will take on Mukwonago

The Knights (23-3) will face Mukwonago (23-3) in a WIAA D1 state semifinal at the Resch Center in Green Bay at 8:15 p.m. Friday, March 11.

They will use the same team-first attitude they used to get to state, behind a seven-person senior class that has learned how to bury their individual egos and find what is best in one another.

'I mean, we're all different things,' said senior forward Madison Hart, who was happily clutching the WIAA sectional title plaque at the time, 'and we're all good at different things. I think that's why we work so well together.

'We knew we had to toughen ourselves up. That it wasn't all about ourselves. That not one person was going to carry us. There are seven seniors on this team for a reason.'

Hart made two massive plays when the game was still in play late in the second half.

The Knights had nursed their way to a physical 18-16 halftime lead during which neither side was able to establish anything inside. But behind heady sophomore point guard Haley Zylka, who said she has had so much fun growing up alongside the seven seniors, including her sister Megan, the Knights found a way.

Zylka found Hart on a give-and-go lob for a lay-up that made it 37-34 Oak Creek with 3:42 left. Then a few seconds later, Hart intercepted a pass that eventually led to two Kara Gilmeister free throws to make it 39-34 with 2:48 to go.

Energy brought about by last year's loss to the Dashers was key all the way through the game.

'Last year was such a motivating factor,' said sophomore point guard Haley Zylka, who was brought up late in the season in 2015 by Hluchnik, gaining valuable experience in the process. 'When we we found out it was DS, it was like 'Come on guys, we can do this.'

'Playing DS to get to state made it just 10 times better.'

Free throws would also play a huge role down the stretch for the Knights. They started the half just two of seven from the line but finished it 15 of 21, including the last 10 in a row.

Following Gilmeister's two tosses, Dasher point Ovi Young hit a bank shot with 2:14 to go to cut the margin to 39-36, but that was as close as the defending champs would get, as the Knights got one free throw from Hart and then two from senior guard Katie Settingsgaard to stretch the margin to six. Settingsgaard was one of those who witnessed the 2014 state title first hand.

Her two tosses made it 42-36 with 1:22 to go, and the Dashers would never get within four after that. After a DSHA hoop, eight straight free throws, including four by Haley Zylka, iced the victory.

'We were ready for this game,' Settingsgaard said. 'We had practiced so hard for this moment ... when we lost to them last time, we knew we just had to come back out and fight, fight, fight. We just never gave up.

'I was so super proud of everyone hitting their free throws at the end.'

Working together

Again, it was a collective effort.

'This is just unbelievable,' said the senior reserve forward Gilmeister who came off the bench for six points and three rebounds. 'This was not expected, but this is just great for we seniors. There are seven of us, and we've played together since fourth grade.

'We're all best friends, and this is just such sweet redemption.'

Oak Creek was led by Haley Zylka, who had 16 points and four assists, while senior guard Hailey Erdman had 10 points and three assists, and Hart had nine points and a team-high eight rebounds. Settingsgaard chipped in with seven points and four rebounds.

DSHA star post Taylor Drost had 12 of her team-high 15 points in the second half.

Hart said the team learned a hard lesson from the nonconference loss to Arrowhead in the last week of the regular season, a defeat that broke a 17-game winning streak for the Knights and shook them out of their complacency.

'That was a serious wake-up call,' said Hart. 'We had a team meeting, and we talked about being ready to go all the time.'

Arrowhead lost in its sectional final to Mukwonago.

Now this Oak Creek group, this strong collective, will look to see if they can make it two state titles in three years.

'They weren't great leaders at the beginning of the season,' said Hluchnik of the seniors, 'but they've learned to get on one another and to push each other. They're very business-like. They know when to have fun and when to get to work. They don't jag around.'

That comes with hard-won experience.

'A lot of us have played together a long time,' Settingsgaard said, 'so we knew what we could do. We hope we can take that kind of effort into state.'

The sophomore among the seniors will try to make sure that happens.

'The team is almost all seniors, and these are the last times I get to play with them,' Haley Zylka said. 'I would love to get to work with them for at least one more game.

'We're always working 100 percent, and we hope to keep doing that.'