Down 19 points late in the first half, the message Tim Arndorfer gave his Wauwatosa East boys basketball team was a simple one: Chip away at the lead in order to make it a game in the second half.
Tosa East did better than that, closing the final 3 minutes of the first half on a 21-4 run to pull within 40-38 at the break. The Red Raiders continued the surge into the second half, scoring the first 9 points before outlasting rival Wauwatosa West for a 70-66 victory March 3 in a WIAA Division 2 regional semifinal.
With the win, the Red Raiders (14-10) advanced to face top-seeded Milwaukee Washington in a regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 4. Tosa West saw an up-and-down season come to an end, one in which coach Chad Stelse resigned late in the regular season, at 12-11 overall.
"Coach just said that this stretch was going to determine the game," Tosa East senior guard Blake Kratzer said. "We had to push right there. That's when all the momentum changed. We stepped up our defense, put a little pressure on them and started finishing around the rim and making our free throws. It all started defensively getting that momentum back, and it carried over into the second half."
The early going was reminiscent of the first meeting between the schools, which Tosa West led from start to finish in a 74-59 victory on Jan. 7.
Alou Dillon scored 8 early points to help the Trojans to a 12-0 lead. Tosa East didn't hit its first field goal until 6 minutes, 32 seconds had gone by, and Tosa West led 36-17 with 3:07 left in the first half.
But that's when the Red Raiders changed the game completely.
Tosa East started hitting shots and forcing turnovers for easy baskets, rattling off a 21-4 run over the final 3:00 of the first half. A dunk by Dillon put the Trojans up, 40-35, but Ke'Andre Griffin drilled a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to pull the Red Raiders to within 40-38.
Blake Kratzer scored 9 points during the run, while Mahlik Lindsey had 7 points and Griffin added 5 points.
"Either the hole was going to be too deep, or we were going to be back in the game," Arndorfer said. "I'm just so proud of how our guys responded to make it a game by half. We had to be with them at half, and then anything could happen in the second half.
"The switch flipped. We carried that over into the second half. We don't have many options on defense in the second half if we don't cut into the lead in the first half. We then knew we could get into some things that could slow them down."
Dane Mikkelson hit a triple on Tosa East's opening possession of the first half to give the Red Raiders their first lead at 41-40. Elijah Flenorl then scored 4 straight points before Mark Cole hit a jumper to make it 47-40 with 14:19 to play.
It was a 30-4 run by the Red Raiders over a stretch of 6 minutes, 48 seconds that spanned the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half.
"They did a nice job of staying composed and not getting too rattled," Tosa West interim coach Pat McCabe said. "With these crosstown rivalry games, we knew it was going to be a game of runs. It was going to be withstanding runs and creating one of your own.
"We had a run early and didn't do a great job of stopping their run early enough by putting the brakes on it with a couple of good possessions. Then it was just a battle and a dogfight to the end."
The run didn't knock Tosa West out, however, as the Trojans stayed within 6 points before taking a 59-58 lead on a floater by Noah Katula with 5:04 left. Tosa West held that advantage until Jalen Holley completed a 3-point play that gave Tosa East a 61-59 lead with 3:10 remaining.
With the game tied, 62-62, with 2:12 left, it appeared as if Javaree Jackson was going to go to the foul line with a chance to put Tosa West in front. But the officials huddled and determined the foul was on Jackson, giving Leonard Avery two free throws instead. Avery banked in the first attempt and swished the second, giving the Red Raiders a 64-62 lead.
Tosa West had three chances to tie the game in the final 2 minutes but could not do so. Tyrone Powell split a pair of free throws that left Tosa East up, 64-63, with 1:48 left, Dillon missed a game-tying 3-point attempt with 1:24 to play and Katula couldn't connect on a triple for the tie with 11.5 seconds remaining.
Meanwhile, the Red Raiders went 8-for-10 from the free-throw line over the final 2 minutes, with Griffin sealing the win by hitting a pair with 8.4 seconds left.
Dillon finished with 24 points and 13 rebounds to reach 1,000 career points, but was held to 6 points in the second half. Tosa East played a box-and-one zone defense to take away the Woodland West Player of the Year and force the Trojans to hit shots to win the game.
Tosa West was unable to force Tosa East out of its zone, making just 6 of 27 attempts from beyond the arc. Powell was the only other Tosa West player in double figures, scoring 13 points.
"The whole point of it was to force them to shoot outside," Arndorfer said. "The first game, they were incredibly hot. We took our chances on their outside shooting this time around and luckily our guys rebounded in the second half."
Lindsey finished with 14 points and seven rebounds, and Holley added 12 points, but it was the senior Kratzer who led Tosa East with 17 points and ignited the run that changed the game.
"I could not end my season here (at West)," Kratzer said. "It would have been really tough. This was definitely huge to get a road win at West to end their season."