This season's version of the Oak Creek girls basketball team can drive veteran coach Steve Hluchnik nuts sometimes.
Build a lead, lose a lead, build a lead, lose a lead.
It's a procedure that stems from having relatively few returnees off the state-qualifying bunch of a year ago, with young players in key positions everywhere. However, despite wilting a couple of times Thursday night against a tenacious Brookfield Central team in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal at Milwaukee South on March 2, the Knights found their backbone, made enough key plays and hit enough free throws to pull out a 68-61 victory.
"It's like I told them after the game, they can look like state champs one minute and then look like they should have lost in the first round of the regionals the next," said Hluchnik.
Though Hluchnik can get frustrated with his charges at his times, he always has their back.
Just ask junior point guard Haley Zylka talking about Hluchnik's reaction to when the Lancers closed to within 58-57 with 1:54 left.
"That definitely sent a rush through a body," she said, "but he just said you have to pick it up. 'You have to fight through this. Don't back down, you don't have to take this. Just pick yourselves up and push forward.'"
The Knights (21-5) went on to fall to second-ranked in state Rufus King (25-0) in the sectional final on March 4. See separate story.
Hluchnik is just happy to be at this level with this team.
"To get this far, with such young kids," he said. "They sometimes don't know any better, but they just keep playing."
As did the Lancers (16-9) right until the end. Central had a series of debilitating injuries at the start of the year but got people back and finished strong, winning 11 of its last 12 games leading into the Oak Creek contest.
That her team just kept fighting back tonight was an extension of the character Central showed all winter, said coach Mallory Liebl.
"It just speaks volumes about our kids," she said. "They've just been so resilient all season, and they never gave up."
That was clear throughout the second half. Oak Creek took a 30-25 lead at the half, scoring the last 8 points of the session, including a go-ahead 3-pointer from junior guard Kassandra Bartek (11 points) and a buzzer-beating baseline jumper from senior guard Jessica McIntosh.
The Knights continued that roll right into the second, starting the half with an 8-3 burst punctuated by junior forward Lea Finn's 3-pointer that made it 38-28 with 14:37 left.
But less than 2 minutes later, the Lancers had tied it on a 10-0 burst of their own, highlighted by a 3 from senior guard Caroline Busch, who finished with a game-high 23 points.
Hluchnik called a timeout to stabilize the reeling Knights, and the result was a 14-2 answer that saw sophomore guard Maddie Gard (15 points) and Zylka (14 points) score the last two buckets. It was 52-40 with 9:12 left with the Knights seemingly in control. A three by Zylka at the 6:33 mark to make it 57-44 seemed to cement that point, but that's when the Lancers put on a full-court press and that seemed to rattle the guard-heavy Knights.
A 13-1 Central run followed, as baskets from senior guard Leah Swenson (10 points) and senior forward Claire Haynes (17) made it 58-57, Oak Creek, with 1:54 left.
"It's not something we do very often (the press)," said Liebl, "but I was pleased with the way the girls stuck with it."
It was another wobbly moment for the Knights, but again, they steadied themselves.
Zylka hit three of four free throws over the next 20 seconds to make it 61-57 with 1:34 to go.. A short time later, Lancers senior forward Ellery Nordling hit two charity tosses to cut the lead to 62-61 with 56 seconds left.
After Finn (15 points) hit two free throws for the Knights to make it 64-61 with 43 seconds to go, Bartek grabbed a tough rebound in traffic after two Lancers' misses. She hit two free throws with 29 seconds left to make it 66-61, and she and the rest of the Oak Creek team could finally breathe easy.
Central missed three more shots on its next possession, and two Zylka free throws with 11 seconds to go gave the game its final score. Oak Creek hit 21 of 29 free throws for the game.
"It was definitely a panicky feeling at times," said Bartek, "but I knew I could rely on my teammates and that we would calm down. It was definitely a team effort."
For Central, a strong rally was done in by some ill-timed turnovers and so-so foul shooting (16 of 26 for the game).
"Oak Creek is a very good team," said Liebl, "and they had a lot of players step up. We were battling foul trouble all night and had a lot of tired girls out there who were fighting as hard as they could, and Oak Creek took advantage of that."
Meanwhile, the Knights will be back in their accustomed position of playing for a berth at state.
"We didn't play very good defense at times," said Hluchnik, "and we panicked at times, too, but fortunately, not too much. We made the plays, and we hit the free throws down the stretch."
Zylka, one of the holdovers from last year, said it's a good feeling knowing her teammates can come through in the crunch.
"I think we've surprised a lot of people," she said. "I have a lot of confidence in this team."