In two games this season, both decided by just four points, the Muskego and Franklin girls basketball teams were pretty evenly-matched.
The Sabers won both times, but when the teams clashed again on Thursday night in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal contest, the Warriors prevailed, 60-47, largely because of one big difference.
That’s ‘big’ in the literal sense, because the deciding factor was 6 foot-3 inch junior post Renee Bennett, who exploded for a game-high 28 points.
Bennett, who is four inches taller than anyone on the Franklin roster, averages just 6.2 points per game and had scored just eight points total in the two contests against the Sabers this season. She had also managed just six points in Muskego’s two previous tournament victories.
On Thursday night, though, she was dominant, taking lob passes, making strong inside moves and either scoring (11 field goals) or drawing fouls (six free throws in 10 attempts).
“Renee has been through a lot,” Muskego head coach Brian Hirtz said. “She’s really come a long way this season. I can’t be more proud of how she played tonight. The kids got her the basketball. We thought we had a good height advantage inside, and Renee took advantage of that and finished strong. It was a breakout game for her.
“She was raw, and we’ve really been pushing her all season to get better,” the coach said. “She’s really been coachable and been listening.”
Franklin coach Tony Kathrens agreed that Bennett’s play was the key factor.
“You can’t coach against height, and we don’t have any,” Kathrens said. “The last couple times we played them, she wasn’t a major factor. She didn’t play a lot of minutes. Tonight she did, and it made all the difference in the world.”
Bennett, who did not start, made her presence known quickly. She tallied eight of Muskego’s first 10 points, winding up on the end of two press breaks for easy scores and taking a lob for another.
Jessica Cattani hit a pair of 3-point field goals as the Warriors opened a 16-9 lead, then Kelly Adams hit a huge 3-pointer to close the first quarter.
The Sabers inbounded with about four seconds remaining, but the Warriors trapped and forced a loose ball. Adams picked it up and nailed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer to make it 21-12.
Ashley Colla hit a 3-pointer early in the second period and Bennett added five more points as Muskego built a 35-21 halftime edge.
Montana Mack and Jenny Eickhorst both netted 3-pointers for the Sabers to key a 9-3 run that trimmed the margin to 38-30 early in the third period.
After a timeout, the Warriors went on a 15-0 run, with Bennett scoring 12 of those points. She started with a basket off a lob and a pair of free throws, then after a 3-pointer by Colla, she added four straight baskets to increase the lead to 53-30.
“I went up there (on a number of possessions) and I had a mismatch,” Bennett said. “Every time I got the ball, I was looking to the hole. I wanted to go there every time.”
The Sabers kept trying to rally. Cassidy Mihalko and Montana Mack combined to lead a 9-1 burst that cut it to 54-39.
Bennett took an inside pass from Jessica Mlachnik for a basket, then Mack hit a 3-pointer and Mihalko two free throws to make it 56-44.
Muskego, though, put away the game with free throws down the stretch.
Cattani finished with 11 points and Colla nine for the Warriors, who hit 54 percent from the field for the first three periods.
Mihalko totaled 18 points and Mack 17 for the Sabers, who were held to 30 percent from the floor.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight,” Kathrens said. “Usually, we shoot a lot better than that. I think on any other given night, it’s a much better game, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. It’s just that simple.”
Muskego had something to do with that.
“I think it was our defensive pressure, not really letting some of their shooters get wide-open looks,” Hirtz said. “They still got a lot of good looks, but not the open looks they’re used to. I thought our inside presence really hurt them.”
Muskego next takes on Middleton (20-5) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Sun Prairie High School in the sectional championship game. The Cardinals, who were the state runnersup last season, downed Watertown, 58-42, for their 12th victory in 13 games.
The winner goes to Madison next week for the state tournament.
“I went out there and I was playing for the team, but (especially) for the seniors,” Bennett said. “I want us to go to state. We have so much talent. I feel like we can get there.”
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