Unranked and unheralded, the Brown Deer boys basketball team got a runner in the lane from junior guard Lewrenzo Byers with 35 seconds left and then held on for a 48-45 WIAA D3 state semifinal win over Manitowoc Roncalli at the Kohl Center in Madison last Friday morning.
With the win, the first in three trips to state for Brown Deer, the Falcons (22-5) went to play for their first WIAA state title last Saturday against the 2013 runner-up Lodi. The Falcons stunned Lodi for the title (see separate story).
Brown Deer coach Kelly Appleby took a deep breath after the early morning semifinal victory.
"We always felt we had something special here this year," said Appleby. "... and we always talk about character, about what you do when things are not going your way. ... Based on the season that we've had, this team has responded to every challenge that it has been given."
Brown Deer graduated 10 seniors off a conference-championship team of a year ago, but didn't miss a beat this season.
"This is an amazing feeling," said 6'-9" senior center Devante Jackson, who led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds and was one of the few returnees back this season. "I figured that this was a once in a lifetime situation, only one chance to do this, so we had to make it count."
The challenges came early and often. The 3-point-bombing Jets hit seven 3-pointers in the first half, including a half-court shot at the first quarter buzzer by Nick Stelzer, though Brown Deer held a 15-14 lead at the first quarter break and 32-31 at half.
The Falcons switched defenses to a 3-2 "shell" zone set with Jackson in the middle. That allowed the Brown Deer bigs (including 6'-6" Jerry Luckett) to get out on the Roncalli shooters more easily.
It was an effective maneuver, but the Jets turned tables and made life more difficult for both Jackson (11 points in the first half) and Luckett. The game slowed to a crawl, every play magnified.
The Falcons went into the fourth quarter with a 39-36 lead on the Jets (25-2) and quickly lifted it to 41-36 on a bucket by Jordan Milam, but the Jets quickly tied it on a shot by Shane Johnson and a 3-pointer from the wing by Josh Erickson.
In the interim, the Falcons were having trouble holding onto the ball. After Jackson turned in a unique 3-point play by rebounding a missed free throw after making his first throw, making it 44-41 Brown Deer with 5:50 left, the Falcons turned the ball over on six straight possessions.
When the Jets' Shane Johnson got a tip-in at the 3:15 mark, Roncalli was up, 45-44. Brown Deer couldn't cash in, and then the Jets started running some clock. Roncalli coach Joe Rux felt that his squad didn't do a good enough job of cashing in on all the Falcons' miscues.
"We rushed things a little bit," he said. "We got good looks but we could not convert. We had good looks at the rim in that run but we could not finish them."
The Falcons, in turn, regained their poise.
After Roncalli got possession with 2:09 left, the Jets ran off more than a minute of clock looking to preserve their 45-44 lead and make Brown Deer foul, but Byers came up with a steal with 48 seconds left.
"We were looking to get fouled at that point (and go to the line)," said Rux, "but then we coughed it up a few times, and that put us in a bad position."
Brown Deer called a timeout after the turnover and, out of the set, Byers (12 points) cut off a screen and hit a runner in the lane with about 35 seconds remaining to make it 46-45 Falcons.
"Coach drew up a play where Jerry (Luckett) or Devante (Jackson) would set a screen and I could cut off the defender and go in for a lay-up or an easy drop-off," said Byers.
"We used the screen to set it up and he beat his defender," said Appleby. Byers finished with 12 points.
Roncalli called a timeout and set up a play of its own. Erickson had a look from the wing, but it went wide. The Falcons' Donovan Lucas grabbed the rebound and was fouled so hard he required medical attention and could not go to the foul line for the subsequent free throws.
Appleby had to think hard about who should be the substitute at the line. In the end, he went with his instinct in sophomore Craig Schimenz, who had not played in the game until then.
"I figured out who was our best percentage guy (at the line)," he said, "and it was unfortunately a sophomore, but knowing him (Schimenz) as a player, I knew he would rise to the challenge."
And he did, calmly knocking down two throws with 10 seconds to go to make it 48-45, Brown Deer.
The Jets raced down to get a look at a tying 3, but they were denied when Brown Deer all-purpose defensive ace Zack Baun swatted a shot out of bounds with just 0.4 left.
After a timeout, a desperation heave by Roncalli was off the mark, and the Falcons were celebrating their first ever state tournament win.
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