Every coach will tell you to throw out the records when the postseason starts. Maybe it's typically true and maybe it isn't, but this wasn't just a battle for advancement in the WIAA Division 2 postseason.
This was a battle for Wauwatosa, and the underdog almost stole the crown.
Wauwatosa West, seeded 12th, led by nine points at halftime and held a lead in the final three minutes of regulation, but fifth-seeded Wauwatosa East made a couple more plays down the stretch and survived a massive scare from the Trojans in a 44-42 opening-round victory at East.
It was a far cry from the 61-39 win Tosa East (14-9) landed over West on Jan. 7, and West didn't look much like a team finishing the year 2-21.
"They played a heck of a basketball game, they really did," East coach Tim Arndorfer said of West. "We knew we missed a lot of easy baskets, which we did in the second half, too. We just had to get stops and convert on offense. We had a three right off hte bat, and we talked about getting it close quick, which we did. Then, it was a dogfight until the end."
The Trojans were able to attempt a heavily-contested jump shot in the final seconds that did not go down. Kyle Vnuk's basket with one foot on the 3-point line with 2:16 to play wound up being the difference for East, with Zak Sylvester adding 1 of 2 free throws at the 1:09 marker to cap the scoring.
"In some ways, there was doubt," said East junior Nate Moore (14 points) who played a key role in an early third-quarter run that narrowed his team's deficit. "But we believed if we picked it up in the second half we had what it took to beat them. We've beaten this team before."
West led most of the first half and opened up a 27-18 edge at the break. Moore scored 8 of his team's points in a 10-2 run that brought the Red Raiders within a point, but West didn't allow that moment to become a tipping point. Though Ben Carpenter's 3-point play gave the Red Raiders a 31-30 lead with 2:24 to go in the third, the Trojans were back ahead by the third-quarter buzzer, 35-31.
After Vnuk's basket, both teams had chances at the free-throw line, with West missing both of its final attempts and East missing 3 of 4 at the line. West's Austin Jones had the ball in his hands with one last look, but East's Zak Sylvester forced a difficult shot from long range that fell well short.
"Our guys played with a lot of courage in the second half," Arndorfer said. "I really respect the effort they gave us and we live to see another day, that's the bottom line."
West's roster included just one senior, with provides a glimmer of optimism for first-year coach Chad Stelse.
"One of our captains said in the locker room, 'We can go into the offseason on a high note, because this is our best performance,'" Stelse said. "It meant something coming from one of our captains. I'm proud of the way we battled all game. I'm impressed with the character our team showed all season despite not getting a lot of W's."
Steffan Brown scored six straight points for West in the first half, and Jones scored 9 of his 12 in the first half. The Trojans maintained their lead even as leading scorer Andre Carroll found himself on the bench with foul trouble.
"We kept telling them all week there's going to be open looks, so shoot with confidence and knock it down, because they switch everything and they'd rather we shoot from the perimeter," Stelse said. "We needed to put together four solid quarters against a defensive team like this. ... We've had trouble playing four quarters and just couldn't make a play down the stretch."
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