The task of finishing weighed heavily on the minds of the players and staff of the Mukwonago girls basketball team during and after their tense 49-45 WIAA D1 state semifinal victory over powerful Oak Creek on March 11 at the Resch Center in Green Bay.
The Indians (24-3) have been in Green Bay three times in the last four years for the state tourney, losing to Milwaukee Riverside in the title game in 2013 and to eventual runner-up Superior in a 2014 semifinal.
Senior guard Bre Cera has been on all three of those teams, while towering center Morgan Glatczak is a veteran of the 2014 battle. They're so close to this championship that they can almost taste it.
'We were second when I was a freshman,' said Cera. 'Our first goal was to win tonight and get to the final. It's great to be here. Now we hope we can finish it off.'
The Indians' chance at a state title came to a disappointing end the next night as they fell in a 52-46 decision to Verona, while the Southeast Conference champion Knights saw their stellar campaign end at 23-4. Oak Creek was seeking its second state title in three years, having won in 2014.
Mukwonago got to the final because Cera kept hounding the Knights' guards on the perimeter and sinking free throw after free throw down the stretch (11 of 12 for the game), when the Mukwonago lead never quite felt safe enough.
'I was doing anything I could to stay in the flow of things,' Cera said. 'Just anything to help, so I kept attacking and tried to stay as poised and composed as possible.'
Glatczak did her part using her 6-5 frame to seal off the inside defensively (five blocks) and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds.
The pair's efforts rubbed off on the rest of the Indians, particularly young talent like freshman guard Grace Beyer.
After all, it was Beyer who led the Indians back after they fell behind the Knights, 27-23, at the 12:44 mark.
Oak Creek senior forward Madison Hart had drained a 3-pointer to give the Knights their biggest lead of the game, but then Beyer hit a trey of her own 20 seconds later to cut the deficit to one.
After a missed Oak Creek shot, senior guard Amanda Brown tracked down a loose ball on the offensive end and calmly swished another 3 to give Mukwonago a 29-27 lead with 11:29 remaining.
Though they would seldom be comfortable after that point, the Indians would never surrender the lead again.
'That was a crucial part of the game,' said Mukwonago coach Rick Kolinske. 'Oak Creek took a lead, but instead of panicking, we showed good composure as Grace hit a 3 and then Amanda hit a 3.'
Beyer's was part of a 12-point night for her that included two treys and a little confidence booster from her coach.
'Grace had a huge impact on this game and on the season as a whole,' Kolinske said. 'She's a freshman who plays like a senior.
'I pulled her aside at halftime because she had taken only one shot in the first half, but in the second half, she showed poise and composure. The same poise and composure she had shown all season.'
Beyer hit two more big buckets down the stretch. She popped in her second trey with 6:51 to go to improve the advantage to 36-32 and then scooped a layup in at the 4:12 mark to make it 38-32.
Senior guard Hannah Bricco drained one of two free throws to make 39-32 with 3:10 left. It was the biggest lead of the game for either team.
It did not help the Knights (23-4) that they went scoreless from the 7:32 mark until the 2:55 mark. The Indians would simply not let them threaten after that point, as after Bricco's free throw, the lead would never get inside 4.
Mukwonago went 11 of 13 from the line in the final 3 minutes.
Cera would cash six attempts in that stretch and Beyer four as the Indians indeed finished what they started.
It was a frustrating night for Knights coach Steve Hluchnik, who was trying to lead Oak Creek to its second state title in three years.
'This was an old-fashioned street brawl,' he said. 'In the end, they just made a few more plays down the stretch. I think we left a bunch of possessions out there.
'Those 3s hurt, big time. We just lost track of two good shooters for a moment, and then we hurt ourselves by not putting the ball in the basket ... that was the quickest defense that we've faced.'
Hart added, 'Anytime we got up by a point or two, we thought that would be the time we would get going, but then they'd hit a shot, and then they would hit another shot.'
The second half was a much faster-paced game after a 19-16 grinder of a first half that saw Mukwonago score the last 5 points of the session to take the lead.
Cera would have 13 of her game-high 23 points in the first half. She would get help from Beyer with 12 and Glatczak with 7.
'That was a great team that we beat,' said Kolinske. 'We were never able to create the gap that we wanted to, but the kids did a great job down the stretch, especially when it came to knocking down free throws.'
Oak Creek was led by center Nicky Widenski, whose outside shooting and 15 total points was effective on occasion in pulling Glatczak out away from the basket. She also grabbed eight rebounds.
Hart had 12 points and eight rebounds, too, as sophomore point guard Haley Zylka added 10 points.
'Their role players stepped up, but it was Cera (and her leadership) that was the difference in the game,' Hluchnik said. 'We tried a few different kids on her, but kids like her are few and far between. Just very difficult to handle.'