It was a sectional final matchup nobody saw coming.
That meant the winner would become the surprise entrant into the WIAA Division 2 state tournament, while the loser could walk away knowing it had capped a successful season with an impressive postseason run.
Finding just enough offense to accompany a strong defensive effort, fourth-seeded Cudahy advanced to state for the first time in program history with a 43-34 victory over second-seeded Wauwatosa East in a sectional final at Brown Deer High School on March 4.
The Packers (19-7) will face Hortonville (20-5) in a Division 2 state semifinal at 1:35 p.m. Friday, March 10 at the Resch Center in Green Bay.
Cudahy has taken off under veteran coach Bob Maronde, overcoming a 3-5 start to the season, including a 56-37 loss to Tosa East on Dec. 28, to be one of the last four Division 2 teams left standing.
“I want to say I had a little hope, but I didn’t think we’d go this far,” Cudahy senior Bailey Eichner said. “It is an amazing feeling. We’ve worked really hard to get to where we are.”
Neither team ever found a rhythm on offense, but Cudahy was able to build a big enough lead to slow the game down in the second half before sealing the victory from the free-throw line.
The Packers were just 2-for-4 from the line in the first half but made 17 of 24 attempts in the second half. Junior forward Hannah Kulas was a perfect 8-for-8 from the stripe after the break to finish with all of her game-high 13 point in the second half.
A pair of 3-pointers by junior guard Molly Persin allowed Tosa East to lead at halftime, 18-15, but 12 first-half turnovers prevented the Red Raiders from building a bigger advantage with the Packers struggling from the field.
Tosa East, which was playing for its first state berth since 1981, continued to turn the ball over in the second half, and Cudahy began to take advantage.
The Packers extended their motion offense in order to spread out the Red Raiders to open driving lanes.
“That opened up some driving lanes and some cutting lanes for us,” Maronde said. “It made a big difference, especially when you have someone like (Bailey Eichner) that can pass the ball the way she does. You want to take advantage of that.”
Tosa East leading scorer Brooklyn Blackburn was whistled for her fourth foul with 13:35 to play. Cudahy took advantage of having the star sophomore on the bench, rattling off an 11-3 run to open a 31-23 lead with 10:58 remaining.
“We got a little scrambled,” Tosa East coach Rob Hamill said. “It was difficult. We ran into some adversity with fouls. In the first half, things were rolling pretty well. Persin hit some big shots.
“Give credit to Cudahy. They played hard and aggressive. From the first time we played them, they worked so much harder, faster and decisively. They beat us fair and square.”
In a game in which offense was at a premium, the run felt like the decisive blow to Tosa East, especially when Maronde decided to have his team slow the pace of the game over the final 8 minutes.
Blackburn scored just her second field goal of the game to bring the Red Raiders with 33-26 with 5:19 left, but Tosa East would not get any closer.
The Red Raiders played without starting forward and lockdown defender Elizabeth Bueckers (6.7 points per game), who was away at a soccer camp.
Blackburn, who entered averaging 15.8 points per game, was held to four.
Evan Knauss stepped into the starting lineup and scored 5 points, while Molly Persin scored 6 points in an increased role off the bench. Senior center Johanna Taylor led Tosa East with 9 points and 11 rebounds, while sophomore guard Sydney Halstead scored 6 points.
“They run a little bit of the old Tex Winter triangle, where they cut to the corner and run a ball screen,” Maronde said. “I thought our kids did a great job jumping out on the ball screen and we got some double teams and turnovers off of it.
“With Brooklyn, it is a matter of beating her to the spot and making sure the next person has the gap, because if you give her a gap, she’s gone.”
The Red Raiders shot 37.5 percent but made just four field goals in the second half and committed 13 miscues to finish the game with 25 turnovers.
Cudahy shot just 11-for-41 (26.8 percent) from the field and 2-for-11 (18.2 percent) from beyond the arc, but outscored Tosa East by 11 points (19 to 8) at the free-throw line.
Senior forward Bailey Eichner finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds and sophomore guard Kaytlin Sagan added 8 points.
For Maronde, taking Cudahy to state was the culmination of a long calendar year that involved a highly-publicized departure from Grafton, a program he led to two state championships and five state tournament berths.
“These guys have been the greatest thing in my life this year,” Maronde said. “They accepted me and bought in. I’ve never had a group of people buy in this quickly to what they do. That’s the reason they have been so successful from January on.”
Tosa East, which entered the year with 9 of 13 players new to varsity basketball, will be able to build on the experience it gained in the sectional final and throughout its postseason run. The Red Raiders lose just one rotation member, but it is an important one in Taylor.
The only other senior on the roster was reserve forward Cora Bilitz.
“That’s where you look at watching those guys receive their medals and use it as motivation,” Hamill said. “They have to understand that we can get here again. They just have to double down on the work and get ready to step forward again.
“After all the emotion and all the pain is over, they are going to remember all the good stuff. There is a lot of good to build on.”