Maybe no word is more fitting of the Brookfield Central girls basketball team than "toughness."
The Lancers have used this toughness to move on from early season adversity in the form of injuries and illness to keep plugging away.
Amanda Miller was the epitome of the word in Brookfield Central's 44-37 comeback win over rival Brookfield East on Jan. 13. Despite not practicing most of the week due to an illness, the senior point guard rarely left the floor and delivered four clutch free throws in the final minute to seal the victory.
"For her to stick through it as tired as she was, to continue playing and knock those down, it speaks volumes about her," Brookfield Central coach Mallory Liebl said. "There was never a doubt she was playing tonight. She's just tough.
"Our girls are just tough. Our girls just dug in and played tough. That's what we've been asking of them the last two weeks in practice. We just have to be tough right now. We're not scoring a ton of points, but we have to take advantage when we do have the opportunity to score."
Brookfield Central won to improve to 5-6 overall and 3-3 in the Greater Metro Conference despite shooting just 9 for 43 (20.9 percent) from the field, scoring 23 of its 44 points from the foul line. By scoring under 40 points for the third straight game, Brookfield East ran its losing streak to three and has now dropped five of its last seven to fall to 8-6 overall and 3-4 in league play.
"We're in a three-game scoring drought now," Brookfield East coach Michael Goodman said. "We have to get back to the basics and trust the process. I don't know necessarily why we are going through so much adversity right now. We might not know for a long time. We just have to keep going and trust the process."
Brookfield Central struggled shooting the ball in the first half, making just 2 of 21 attempts. The Lancers trailed by just 6 points at 20-14 because they got to the free-throw line 16 times and made 10.
"I looked up at the scoreboard walking off at halftime and saw it was 20-14 and thought, 'Holy cow, how are we still in this?'" Liebl said. "Defensively, we did a really good job. We had a couple of possessions there where we let them get out for threes, but our girls did a really good job of adjusting when we needed to. A big thing too was getting huge rebounds when they were missing."
A long 3-pointer by Busch brought the Lancers to within 26-22 with 13:15 remaining. Spartans leading scorer Molly DeValkenaere then committed her fourth foul with 12:55 left, and Ellery Nordling converted on both free throws to make it 26-24.
Brookfield East scored just 8 points in the 8 minutes, 2 seconds when DeValkenaere sat on the bench in foul trouble.
For the third straight game, the Spartans struggled to score against a zone defense. Brookfield East shot 30.8 percent (8 for 26) in the first half and 26.9 (7 for 26) in the second half to finish at 28.8 percent for the game. The Spartans did connect on six 3-pointers but attempted 20.
"It is still surprising that we panic with the ball as much as we do," Goodman said. "When it comes time to make a play, we are not making them. We are playing too east-west instead of north-south. We are not putting a lot of pressure on a defense. Three games in a row, teams have gone zone against us. We're not hitting any shots to get them out of the zone.
"It is like football. If you can't pass, they are going to stack the box and take the run away. They are stacking the middle, and we can't get it inside. If you don't hit any outside shots, they are not going to come out from that zone."
Mortag hit a jumper to tie the game at 29 with 7:09 to play, but Nikki Pink answered with five straight points for the Spartans to put Brookfield East up, 34-29, with 5:09 left.
After Leah Swenson hit a jumper to make it 34-33, Mortag scored inside to give Brookfield Central a 35-34 advantage. DeValkenaere was fouled and split a pair of free throws to even the score at 35-35 with 2:34 to play.
On Brookfield Central's ensuing possession, Mortag completed a 3-point play to give the Lancers a 38-35 lead with 1:58 remaining.
DeValkenaere cut it to 38-37 with a jumper, and the Spartans forced a turnover with 56.0 seconds on the clock. Adriana Plavsic missed an attempt at a go-ahead 3-pointer. Caroline Busch grabbed the rebound and got it to Miller, who was fouled with 32.6 seconds left.
Miller hit both foul shots to put the Lancers in front, 40-37. Mortag then stole an errant Brookfield East pass, and Miller sunk two more free throws to all but salt away the game at 42-37 with 22.2 seconds remaining.
"I was scared because I had missed two free throws in the first half," Miller said. "I knew I had to make them. It trickled in, so I was happy about that."
Miller finished with 9 points, while Mortag scored 15 points to lead Brookfield Central. Caroline Busch recorded a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, and Nordling finished with 10 rebounds.
In addition to going 23 for 31 (74.2 percent) from the foul line, the Lancers outrebounded the Spartans, 41-33, including a 14-9 advantage on the offensive glass.
"We just kept working, kept our composure and kept fighting," Liebl said. "I told the girls in a timeout that our backs were against the wall, and this is why we practice as hard as we do so that we can dig in when we need to. I thought we did a fantastic job of going one possession at a time. We got huge stops and were able to capitalize at the end of the game."
Having entered a Jan. 6 battle at Sussex Hamilton with the opportunity to move into the top spot in the league standings, the Spartans have had a rough past week. They have lost four consecutive Greater Metro games to go from 3-0 to 3-4 and into a fifth-place tie with Menomonee Falls.
Last season, Brookfield East began 9-1 before losing five of six to drop to 10-7. The Spartans recovered to win six of eight to finish the year strong, something Goodman hopes happens again.
"In life, you go through adversity," Goodman said. "This is basketball adversity. It is staring at us right in the face. How are we going to respond? I don't want to be known for this, but we did this last year. We got it back together, and were able to salvage the season a bit. This is kind of the same thing. Now we're below .500 in the conference. Hopefully, we can salvage this thing and go from there."