The number 3 played a big role in the New London girls’ basketball team’s first state championship.
The Bulldogs’ 53-45 win over Luxemburg-Casco Saturday, March 26, in the Division 2 title game was the third time the teams had matched up this season.
The trip to state at Madison’s Kohl Center was New London’s third.
And the three-point shot helped the Bulldogs take an early lead that they never gave up.
The win capped a 25-3 season and came a day after New London beat Milton 59-49 in the state semifinals.
New London 53, Lux-Casco 45
The Spartans had defeated the Bulldogs twice during the regular season – 41-26 and 51-42 – on the way to a Bay Conference championship, but couldn’t dig out of an early hole.
New London hit five of its first six three-pointers to take a 15-5 lead six minutes into the game. The Bulldogs led 17-7 after one quarter and led by as many as 12 before taking a 26-18 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Spartans chipped away at the lead in the third quarter and eventually cut it to 31-28 and 34-31, but the Bulldogs closed the quarter with a 7-4 run to take a 41-34 lead into the final period.
Bridget Pethke hit a pair of free throws with 3:45 remaining in the game to give New London a 49-37 lead, but the Spartans scored the game’s next eight points. Kelsey Joniaux’s free throw with 41 seconds to go cut the lead to 49-45, but that’s as close as L-C would get down the stretch, as Tara Knapstein and Morgan Steinert each hit a pair of free throws.
Knapstein led the Bulldogs with 13 points, Brooke Fitzgerald added 11 and Emily Steffanus came off of the bench to score 10.
Janelle VandenPlas led the Spartans with 20 and Joniaux finished with 13.
“I am definitely never going to forget this experience,” Knapstein said. It’s the most memorable in my life so far. I remember the community coming together and supporting us. We deserve it because we put all the hard work in before basketball season even started. We knew from that point on that we were going to come together as a team and work toward one goal. It turned out to be the right goal.”
“I think it was Jan. 28 or so that we lost to L-C the second time,” coach Troy Krause said. “We had a team meeting after that game and put some things on the table. The girls rallied off of that.
“We were down here four years ago and lost a heartbreaker to Grafton,” he added. “As a coach, you think one more shot, and luckily I was able to get that. More importantly, I was able to bring down another team give them a chance to experience this.”
“Our team is based on being a family and everyone coming together and doing their roles,” said Fitzgerald, one of three seniors on the team.
“It feels amazing,” she said. “Being a senior in the last game of the year, it makes the whole season come together, the whole experience of high school basketball just that much better.”
The Spartans won the Bay Conference championship this season with a 16-0 mark, while New London finished second.
“We know their players,” Krause said. “We’ve had some battles with them the last couple of years. This isn’t a one-year thing that we’ve got going here.”
New London connected on 18 of 41 shots in the game, including eight of 15 three-pointers. The Spartans, on the other hand, hit only three of 16 attempts from behind the arc.
“If we shoot the ball well, we’re a good team,” Krause said. “If we don’t, we’re going to have some trouble. I’ve told these girls since Day 1, ‘If you’re open, shoot the ball.’ This is the best-shooting team I’ve had. They bought into that and their confidence grew as we went along. Tonight, it worked out for us.”
New London 59,Milton 49
Milton jumped out to a 12-6 lead late in the first quarter, but Knapstein cut the lead in half with a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
The Bulldogs outscored Milton 12-7 in the second quarter to take a 21-19 halftime lead.
Neither team led by more than three points in the third quarter. Emily Steffanus hit a pair of free throws with three seconds to go in the period that gave New London a 40-39 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
Knapstein, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer this season, had seven points in the first half, but helped spark New London in the second half. Her layup with 2:03 to go in the game gave the Bulldogs a 50-42 lead and Milton never got any closer. New London’s nine final points came from the free-throw line.
“We had a game plan in place, but they got some cutters on us early,” Krause said. “The story of the game was to make our free throws down the stretch.”
Knapstein was the only Bulldog to score in double figures, as she led all players with 20.
“I wasn’t doing as well as I could,” she said of her early struggles. “We know we can pick each other up when we’re having a tough time.”
Brenna Heise added eight points off of the bench for the Bulldogs, while Bridget Pethke chipped in with seven.
Ashley Roherty and Morgan Bloomer led Milton with 11 points each.
“We had a game plan in place to stop some cutters and I thought we could have done a little better job of that,” Krause said. “Our goal was to make it as fast as we could. As the game went on, we were able to do that. We wore them down a little.
“The story of the game was making our free throws at the end,” he said. “We must have missed six in a row to start the game. To turn it around down the stretch and make those free throws kind of sealed the game for us.”
New London held Milton’s leading scorer, Liz Eide, to 10 points, including only two in the first half.
Knapstein also struggled in the first half and had seven points at the break. However, three of those points came on a buzzer-beating three at the end of the first quarter to cut Milton’s lead to 12-9.
“It was nice because it allowed me to use it that in the huddle in between the quarters and talk about how we didn’t play real well in the first quarter, but we look up and we’re only two buckets down,” Krause said. “It allowed me to get the girls refocused.”
“I knew since I hadn’t been making a bunch of plays in the first quarter that I needed to step up,” Knapstein said. “When I started out, I wasn’t doing as well as I know that I could. I think I was a little nervous. When it came to the fourth quarter, I knew free throws are important. I just went through my routine, slowed the game down in my head and did what I always do in practice.
“I have total confidence in my team. When some of us can’t score, our teammates step up. We know that we can pick each other up when we’re having a tough time. We don’t rely on one person to score all the time.”