Mukwonago gave Muskego all it could handle for three quarters, but then Jessica Mlachnik took over.
The senior guard scored a game-high 15 points and forced four fourth quarter turnovers as the host Warriors (17-7) succeeded in fending off the scrappy Indians, 53-45, in Saturday night’s WIAA Division 1 regional final showdown. The No. 2-seeded Warriors advance to face top-seeded Franklin on Thursday at Badger.
Sixth-seeded Mukwonago (12-12) proved its resiliency Friday night by upsetting third-seeded Janesville Craig, and the Indians also beat the Warriors in double overtime on Jan. 24, 60-59. Muskego head coach Brian Hirtz expected another gritty contest.
“I absolutely expected a tough game,” Hirtz said. “We played Mukwonago earlier in the year, and they beat us in double overtime. So you get to the regional finals, you know it’s going to be a battle. We know each other well, and I thought we played great defense in the fourth quarter to seal the deal for us.”
Mlachnik also came to play expecting a tight game.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” she said. “They’re a tough team, and they beat us earlier in the season, so I knew it was going to be good game.”
Muskego led by 10 points in the first half, but the Indians wouldn’t go away. The Warriors, while pushed to their limit, clung to a steady lead from the opening whistle until the final minute of the third quarter. Mukwonago junior guard Jenny Tuttle hit a free throw to convert a three-point play at 59-second mark and gave the Indians a 37-36 lead. However, Mlachnik responded with a basket off an inbounds play in the final seconds to give Muskego a 38-37 advantage heading into the final quarter. The Warriors would never relinquish the lead.
“It was time for us to pick it up,” Mlachnik said. “We knew we were the better team, we were in control the whole game, and when they grabbed a lead, it was kind of a wake-up call that we needed to step it up a little bit.”
While Mlachnik did score six of Muskego’s 15 fourth-quarter points, it was her defensive effort that put the Indians away.
“Jessica is an unbelievable athlete,” Hirtz said. “She plays great defense, and she got some big steals for us in the fourth quarter by applying some great pressure. Up until the fourth, we were going a little too fast, dribbling a little too much and getting ourselves in trouble. Once we talked to the kids and slowed things down a little bit and took care of the basketball, things worked out for us.”
For Mukwonago, junior guard Amber Gray posted a team-high 14 points, while Tuttle added 13. Muskego junior guard Ashley Colla tied Mlachnik’s game-best 15 points. Colla was a headache for Mukwonago on the perimeter, draining four three-pointers.
As the Warriors move closer to their state tournament goal, they will again face a familiar foe on the way to Madison. Southeast Conference foe Franklin defeated Muskego twice this season, by scores of 48-44 and 57-53 on Jan. 3 and Feb. 7, respectively.
“We lost twice to them twice in a couple of very tight games,” Hirtz said. “It’ll be interesting to play them a third time on a neutral court.”
As she clutched the regional championship plaque in her arms, Mlachnik made her expectations for the Warriors crystal clear.
“Franklin’s beaten us twice this year. I think it’s about time we beat them.”
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