Once his team got the lead against Southeast rival Muskego Tuesday night in the fourth quarter, Franklin girls basketball coach Tony Kathrens did something that the Sabers haven't done much in the last 15 successful years of the program.
They pulled the ball out and milked the clock.
"I wasn't hesitant to slow it down," Kathrens. "With the way they (the Warriors) play I wanted the kids to stay calm and be able to dictate the pace. When we played Nicolet (in the recently held Rathke Tournament), we tried to run with them and we turned it over a ton."
"We weren't going to do that again."
And they didn't.
A 6-0 run midway through the fourth quarter gave the Sabers a 41-37 lead and then they were able to hold on through a series of free throws and some stout defense to earn a 48-44 victory. That win kept them in a tie for first place in the Southeast Conference race with defending champion Racine Case (4-0, 7-2).
The victory was the first in the regular season for Franklin over Muskego in three years. The Sabers had defeated the Warriors in an emotional WIAA sectional battle last season.
With the win, Franklin improved to 4-0 in league play and 7-2 overall while Muskego fell to 3-1 and 6-3, respectively.
Muskego coach Brian Hirtz was frustrated that his team couldn't finish off a game during which the Warriors grabbed an 8-0 lead and had Franklin stifled for much of the first half with an active 1-3-1 zone defense.
"We started out playing tough," he said, "but we didn't play very smart. We got ourselves in foul trouble. Just dumb fouls, where we were caught reaching. When we had to put our starters on the bench that's when they (the Sabers) were able to get back into the game."
"Give credit to them (the Sabers) though. They withstood the firestorm (in the first quarter) and kept their composure."
That's what Kathrens was counting on for his junior-dominated team to do late in the game.
The Warriors took their last lead of the contest when Julia Keegan hit a three-pointer from the wing with 4:54 remaining that made it 37-34, but the Sabers quickly tied it up on a three of their own from Katie Nord (team-high 12 points).
After forcing a miss by the Warriors, Franklin junior guard Cassidy Mihalko (11 points) got out on the break, hit a lay-up and was fouled. She downed the free throw with 4:13 remaining and the the Sabers never trailed again.
Mihalko hit another free throw at the 3:29 mark to make it 41-37 after the Sabers ran a variation of the weave out near the center-circle until something opened in the middle.
It was a theme that would be repeated often in the final moments.
The Warriors Jessica Cattani (13 points) hit a lay-up off a steal to make it 41-39 with 2:36 left.
Muskego had an opportunity to tie the score after the Sabers missed the fropnt end of the bonus, but after getting an offensive rebound, they turned the ball over, a frequent problem for the Warriors this night.
After an exchange of turnovers, Mihalko blocked a Muskego jumper on the baseline and that eventually resulted in two free throws by teammate Kristin Witkowski to make it 43-39 with 1:06 remaining.
After another Muskego miss, Franklin missed another front end of the bonus, but the Warriors could not cash in, spending two time-outs and still throwing the ball away on the inbounds with 33 seconds remaining.
Franklin, which hit an indifferent 16 of 29 from the foul line for the game, missed two more charity tosses, but gathered in the offensive rebound and Witkowski was fouled. She made one of two with 22 seconds left to make it 44-39.
Muskego's Jessica Mlachnik hit a driving lay-up to cut the lead to 44-41 with 14 seconds left.
It was finally in the last nine seconds that the foul line became the Sabers' friend.
Mihalko hit two throws with nine seconds left to make it 46-41.
But just to keep it interesting, the Warriors' Ashley Colla hit a three-pointer to make it 46-44 with 2.9 seconds remaining, but then the Sabers' Jenny Eickhorst knocked down a brace of attempts with 1.7 seconds left to clinch the victory.
"We had opportunities to put it in the hole a lot more often than we did," said Hirtz. "We had a huge size advantage (three players over six feet tall while the tallest Saber was just 5-9) and we should monopolized things inside but we didn't get it done."
"Just too many dumb turnovers in the end (nine in the second half)."
Kathrens was impressed by his team's tenacity.
"It's good to be 4-0," he said. "We beat Oak creek earlier this season but we figured we needed another signature win and we figured that it had to be either Muskego or Case. We got Muskego and that should solidify us as a contender (in the Southeast), which is our goal."
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