Playing for a girl at school "who's going through a lot of tough things right now", Wauwatosa East boys basketball coach Tim Arndorfer and his Raiders battled back from a six-point fourth quarter deficit to pull out a critical 69-66 Greater Metro Conference basketball decision at Menomonee Falls Friday night.
"Sarah Pease is a sophomore at school who's been diagnosed with cancer (specificially AML, a form of leukemia) and so we decided to have a little tribute for her today," said a weary Arndorfer after the game.
The tribute, which went on all-day at school, included everyone wearing purple "How Strong, Sarah Strong" t-shirts. The team even wore them as warm-ups prior to the game.
And the strength the Raiders exuded this night was enough to keep them in a tie for the lead atop the GMC standings with Marquette at 5-1. East is 9-4 overall.
Meanwhile, Falls' hopes of back-to-back league titles took a major hit, as it lost another close effort to a quality opponent. A recurring theme for a team that is so close, but still just this far away from being among the elite.
The Indians are 4-3 in league play and 6-7 overall
"It's the kind of thing that has been happening all year," said a clearly frustrated coach Ben Siebert. "...We just never know what it's going to be. It could be the first minute of the game, the first quarter, the last shot of the half or the final seconds. This time for us, it was the start of the game."
"We allowed ourselves to get outworked in the first quarter and then we were fighting uphill the entire game."
That was indeed the case, as East did start out "Sarah Strong", blistering Falls with a 19-7 surge as the Raiders outrebounded the Indians 9-2 and got seven points from junior forward Darrell Bowie (13 points).
It continued into the second quarter as after Anthony Carroll's fastbreak lay-up at the 4:58 mark, it was 27-12 East.
But as Siebert later alluded to, the Indians "didn't fold up their tents".
They got sparks off the bench from Bryan Oleszak and James Ulicki, and surged back into the game. When junior guard C.J. Malone (team-high 18 points) hit a long three-pointer from behind the key just before the buzzer, the Indians were down only 35-30 at the half.
That was despite the fact that star J.P. Tokoto, who would go over 1,000-career points this night, had only two free throws in the half and point guard Jalen Ramey was saddled with three fouls.
Falls' surge continued into the early third quarter as the Indians went on a 9-3 run that put them ahead 39-38 with 5:09 left in the session after Ramey completed a three-point play.
"We knew that they would come back," said Arndorfer. "We just had too many turnovers and had too many empty possessions."
However, in a trend that was indicative of this contest, the Raiders came right back to earn a 52-47 lead in the period on a Carroll basket and two free throws. but Falls matched that effort, as Kevin Scroggins and Oleszak got buckets in the final 22 seconds to close the gap to 52-51 heading into the final stanza.
Falls' scored the first six points of the fourth to go-ahead 57-52 with 6:45 remaining and when Tokoto hit two free throws with 5:08 left, it was 60-54 Indians.
But as Arndorfer said "his team didn't let the game get out of hand", as the Raiders held the Indians scoreless for the next 3:12.
Carroll, who would lead all scorers with 26 points, converted a key three-point play with 4:40 left to cut the margin to 60-57. Guard Diamontae McKinley then got a nifty backcut hoop at the 3:17 mark to make it 60-59.
The teams took turns missing and making free throws (East would be just nine of 17 from the stripe in the fourth quarter) and with 1:29 left, it was tied at 61-all.
Siebert explained how the lead was lost.
"We wanted to continue to attack, but then we relaxed a little bit," he said. "Aggressiveness is what got us the lead at that point, but then we started making plays that weren't that way, and I really can't tell you why that happened."
Bowie, hit one of two free throws at the 1:09 mark to give East a 62-61 lead. Following a Falls turnover, Carroll drove strong to the basket and then converted the three-point play to make it a 65-61 game with just 55 seconds left.
And when East's Vince Cupertino hit one of two free throws with 29 seconds left, it was 66-61 and it looked like the game was over.
But it wasn't.
Falls, which had lost Ramey (12) to fouls with 2:26 left, still had a lot of fight in it yet.
Steve Ross (8) converted a three-point play with 21 seconds to go to make it 66-64 and then on the subsequent in-bounds, Malone made a highlight reel steal along the baseline which he converted into an acrobatic over-the-shoulder banked lay-up with just 14 seconds to go to tie the score.
The din in the Indian gym was so loud that not everyone heard the whistle just two seconds later indicating a Falls foul.
East's Jackson Orin then hit one of two free throws to give the Raiders the lead for good with 12 seconds left. Falls came down, but a Tokoto shot came up a bit short and McKinley (10) drained two free throws with less than a second left to finally clinch the thing.
Arndorfer, who was tired and joked with reporters about needing a little rest before he would conduct an interview, said this was a character test for his team.
"Boy, oh boy, this was an exhausting win," he said, "but a good one. The kids are working hard and are really starting to get it. We struggled with a lot of things, but made plays and hit free throws when we needed them."
And then he remembered the real motivation for the game.
"I guess we were all Sarah Strong tonight."
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