After a 45-point loss to New Berlin Eisenhower on Jan. 28, it was fair to wonder which direction Wauwatosa East's boys basketball team would take its season. It seemed as if the Red Raiders were at a critical crossroads.
As it turns out, Tosa East has quite a bit of fight left in the tank.
The Red Raiders quickly bounced back with a 55-54 win over Marquette on Jan. 31 before completing a season sweep of Menomonee Falls with a 79-75 victory over the Indians on Feb. 3.
Tosa East improved to 9-8 overall with the wins and moved into a second-place tie in the Greater Metro with Menomonee Falls at 7-3 in league play, two games back of Brookfield Central with four conference games remaining.
"I was not sure what to expect going into the week after the loss to New Berlin Eisenhower," Tosa East coach Tim Arndorfer said. "I think it says a lot about our kids. They have a resilience to them that is very admirable. To do it against Marquette after what happened to them the first time and to follow it up with a solid victory over Menomonee Falls, I was just really proud of how they responded."
Arndorfer didn't want to dwell on the Eisenhower loss, but he did use it as a way to spark a conversation at the following Monday's practice. He reminded the Red Raiders there was still plenty left to play for, including a conference championship.
"I took some ownership of things," Arndorfer said. "The tone that I had maybe set was probably not the right one. We talked about what maybe our coaching staff needs to do better, and I asked (the players) to do the same. They responded. We're trying to build something here in this last part of the season to get us ready for the postseason. Last week was a step in the right direction for that."
What made the victory over Marquette particularly rewarding was that it avenged another one of Tosa East's off nights, a 57-38 road loss to the Hilltoppers on Jan. 17.
The Red Raiders got the best of their rivals this time around, as senior guard Blake Kratzer hit a pair of free throws with three seconds left to extend Tosa East's lead to 55-51. Those free throws proved to be critical when Marquette hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to make the final score 55-54.
Junior forward Jalen Holley led the Red Raiders with 22 points.
"It was back and forth," Arndorfer said. "The difference in the game from the first time around was that we were able to score. We just really, really struggled to find any offense in the first game and dug ourselves a hole. We knew we had to have an early start. Defensively, we tried a couple of different things. It still is difficult for us to deal with their size, but I feel we had superior guard play. That proved to be the difference in the game with free-throw shooting."
By downing Menomonee Falls, Tosa East completed a season sweep of the Indians for the first time since 2012-13. Two of Menomonee Falls' three conference losses have come to the Red Raiders, with the other at the hands of first-place Brookfield Central.
"It was a game of runs," Arndorfer said. "We knew that was what it was going to be. With the pressure they give you all game long, you just have to be able to survive the runs they are going put at you. We were able to get ahead at different times by seven or nine. They'd make a run at us, and we'd answer with a run of our own.
"I thought we had control for most of the game. We were able to get the lead and make our own little runs and separate just enough. Our free throws were really clutch in maintaining our lead down the stretch."
Tosa East likely must win out in conference play order to have any chance at a share of the Greater Metro title. Even if the Red Raiders take care of Sussex Hamilton on Feb. 7, West Allis Hale on Feb. 10, West Allis Central on Feb. 17 and Brookfield East on Feb. 23, they will need Brookfield Central to trip up twice in its final four games.
"We're really just worrying about taking care of our business," Arndorfer said. "Our goal is to finish the year with three conference losses, which means we win out. Then, we hope to get a little bit of help. We had chances to control our destiny in that first game with Brookfield Central and squandered that."