In the blink of an eye, the Brookfield East boys basketball team was down, 17-0, to Pius XI on Dec. 27, and it appeared as if the state-ranked Popes were going to run the Spartans out of their own gym. But instead of folding, Brookfield East fought back, answering by scoring 20 straight points to not only get back in the game but take the lead.
Pius XI ended up pulling out a 55-48 win in the end, but the Spartans showed the progress they've already made just seven games into the first year of Joe Rux's tenure as head coach by hanging with one of the state's top teams.
"Our team is starting to learn it can play good basketball when they play together and concentrate on defense first," Rux said. "We're a good team at that point. It is a lot of trying to figure out what our identity is as we go and then making sure we get maximum and consistent effort on every possession.'
Zach Zavada hit five 3-pointers in the first 4 minutes to help the Popes, ranked No. 9 in the Division 2 state coaches poll, to a 17-0 lead. Riley Le Tourneau got Brookfield East on the scoreboard 4 minutes, 21 seconds into the game, beginning a 20-0 spurt that put the Spartans up 20-17 with 7:10 remaining in the half.
Junior forward Patrick Cartier scored 11 of the 20 points for Brookfield East (3-4 overall), while senior guard Jake Graf drilled a 3-pointer to put the Spartans in front.
A triple by freshman guard Michael Poker extended Brookfield East's lead to 26-20, but Pius closed the half on a 9-2 run to take a 29-28 advantage into the break, a lead it would not relinquish.
Ahead, 37-34, with 12:39 to play, Pius used a quick 12-3 spurt to build at 12-point lead on a putback bucket by Victor Nwagbaraocha with 7:15 left.
"They are a good team," Rux said. "They are very athletic and are skilled from the perimeter. Zavada certainly can shoot it and fill it up, and they create a lot of problems inside in the post game as well. If you give them an opportunity to get a little advantage, it makes it for a tough climb to get back to even."
Cartier wouldn't let the Popes (6-1) put the Spartans away, however. The junior scored 7 unanswered points himself to bring Brookfield East to within 49-44 with 4:25 remaining. The Spartans couldn't get any closer, as Nwagbaraocha and Preston Maccoux hit key shots for the Popes and Brookfield East couldn't capitalize on missed free throws by Pius.
Brookfield East hit just five of its 21 attempts from beyond the arc, while Pius hit eight triples and shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
"We're going to have to be a team that strives on getting better at shooting," Rux said. "All it comes down to is getting in the gym and working hard every single day at it. We're not discouraging those looks, but what are you going to do? They were open looks. Against a team with that much size and length, those are shots you have to make to beat them."
Graf was the only senior to play significant minutes for Brookfield East against Pius. The young Spartans had two freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors fill out their rotation.
Cartier led the Brookfield East with 24 points and eight rebounds, while Graf scored 13 points and six rebounds, hitting 4-of-7 attempts from distance. Zavada finished with 22 points on six made 3-pointers for Pius. Nwagbaraocha added 14 points, and Maccoux scored 11 points.
"When he puts together his streaks of playing exceptionally hard and looking for the ball, he's tough to stop," Rux said of Cartier. "He does a really good job of getting his position and using multiple moves to score. He's a tough out for the inside. That has been the reason singlehandedly why we've been able to play with good teams.
"I think our shooting will get better as we find ourselves a little more. There's a lot of thinking out there about what we are trying to do and how we are trying to get our points. It is a process, and we just have to keep working."
The schedule didn't lighten up for the Spartans, as they were scheduled to play at fourth-ranked Cedarburg on Tuesday, Jan. 3. Brookfield East return to Greater Metro Conference play with a home game against Sussex Hamilton at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6.