It's not a sectional final matchup anyone saw coming. Yet, fourth-seeded Cudahy will await Wauwatosa East, a team that featured nine new varsity players among the 13 on its roster coming into the year, in the March 4 game at Brown Deer with a berth in the state tournament on the line.
Tosa East earned its spot with a 46-36 win over Shorewood on March 2 at West Allis Central, gradually pulling away in the second half against a fourth-seeded Greyhound team that shocked top-seeded Milwaukee Pius five days earlier.
Johanna Taylor registered 17 points, and with the Greyhounds' fabulous freshman Khamya McNeal limited to 9 points, the Red Raiders reached their first sectional final since 2000 and will seek their first state berth since 1981.
"We were a little tentative in the first half," Tosa East coach Rob Hamill said. "We didn't do some things we wanted to, but in the second half, I thought the pace of the game picked up a little bit, and that was to our advantage. At the same time, we were able to get a couple rests on the court and be a little deliberate to get our feet back underneath us and get our minds on it. Sometimes, we have a tendency to scramble a little bit."
Neither side had a rhythm in a 16-15 first half, with Shorewood holding the narrow advantage. But the pace quickened dramatically in the early stages of the second half, and Tosa East went on a 13-1 run to take a 31-24 lead. Perhaps the key moment of that run came when Shorewood was whistled for a backcourt violation in a sequence where it appeared Taylor briefly corralled a loose ball before her pass bounced back to the Greyhounds. Officials ruled that Tosa East didn't have possession in that instance, and Mariana Ibanez-Baldor canned a corner three for Tosa East in the ensuing seconds to give her team a 27-23 lead.
"Both referees said, 'You're right coach, but I can't overturn it,'" Shorewood coach Jeff Eimers said. "She did grab it and throw it. It took a possession away from us, and then they hit a three. They had all the momentum. That was a tough one."
Ibanez-Baldor hit another three that put her team ahead 34-27 and also had a long 2-pointer in that key run.
"We've been trying to work on Mariana's confidence," Taylor said. "To see her hit a three boosted everyone. If she's on, I know I can be on."
Ibanez-Baldor added, "I was just missing all my shots at the beginning of the game. My coaches were telling me to keep shooting. Even good shooters miss 50 percent of their shots, so I think after that shot, it just helped the whole team keep going."
The 6-2 senior Taylor had 11 of her 17 after halftime, frequently catching the ball in the paint and either driving or delivering to an open teammate.
"Our team goes through lows but then we get into these rhythms and we feed off each other and just keep going," Taylor said. "I was kind of asleep in the first half for some reason. I was thinking this could be my last game, so I had to really leave it all out there."
Taylor was the lone senior starter for either team. Sophomore Brooklyn Blackburn, who scored 40 points in an earlier playoff game, added 13 points for Tosa East.
"Normally our bigs are pretty tough," Eimers said. "No. 40 (Taylor) did a nice job inside, and then you have Blackburn there, too. We normally can score inside, but we didn't in this situation."
McNeal hit a 3-pointer to start the game and made a highlight reel play in the late going when she was tripped up near midcourt but kept her dribble for a coast-to-coast layup. But she was never able to get on a roll.
"The whole year, she's been making plays, and she just didn't tonight," Eimers said. "It's the first time that she looked maybe a little frazzled. The beauty of Khamya is that she does not look like a freshman. Normally, she hits a couple threes, and if she hits a couple threes (tonight), it's a totally different game."
Shorewood also started two sophomores and two juniors.
"We came on strong at the end of the year," Eimers said. "We have all our starters back. We don't have much of a bench, and that hurts us; our girls get tired. The other thing that was disappointing was we had a lot of breakaway layups (that we didn't convert), like four or five of them."
Hamill also has two sophomores and two juniors in his starting five, but the Red Raiders' defense had a veteran poise.
"Our calling card has been defense, halfcourt defense all year long," Hamill said. "Strong gaps, that's been our concept. No matter how good the opponent is, we play that kind of defense. We were a little slow tonight, but we played much better at times defensively. We'll have to ramp that up Saturday afternoon."
"Our last home game against West Allis Central (a 60-49 win), that's really when we came into a place where we thought we're a team that can really make it to state," Taylor said.