It is time to take notice of what the Brookfield East boys basketball team has going.
Flying under the radar after a 2-3 start, the Spartans are suddenly right in the thick of the Greater Metro Conference race just one year after going winless in league play.
Brookfield East won for the fourth time in its last six games by outlasting rival and state-ranked Brookfield Central, 67-60, in overtime Jan. 13 in front of a packed house at East High School.
The state ranking and perfect record of the Lancers didn't phase the Spartans, as they had already hung with state-ranked Pius XI and Cedarburg this season.
"I didn't really look at that," Brookfield East guard Jake Graf said. "I just needed to look at Central. That's all I needed right there. They could be undefeated or have zero wins. It is the same feeling beating them."
The young Spartans are now 6-5 overall and 4-2 in the Greater Metro, one game back of Brookfield Central. Meanwhile, the Lancers, ranked No. 4 in the Division 1 coaches poll, fell from the ranks of the unbeaten to 10-1 and into a first-place tie with Menomonee Falls in the conference at 5-1.
"Obviously, we are young," Brookfield East coach Joe Rux said. "We're very young. Certainly, at this point of the year, you aren't as young as you seem on paper at the beginning of the year, but the kids have found a way to learn. They are all in on wanting to learn and listening to instruction.
"They kept their calm pretty well out there and executed. They didn't get rattled when Brookfield Central made their runs. We continued to have answers of our own."
Slow starts to games hurt the Spartans in close losses to Pius XI and Cedarburg. Graf made sure Brookfield East didn't start slow against Brookfield Central, scoring the Spartans' first 8 points and 12 of their first 15.
Brookfield East led 15-9 with 6:35 left in the first half and took a 26-25 advantage into halftime.
"I've been really focused on starting fast," Graf said. "Against Pius, we come out down 17-0 and lose by seven. We won the game outside of that early run. The same thing happened against Cedarburg. We started slow and only lost by four. After those two games, we knew that we could hang with anybody, and that if we started fast, we can beat anybody."
The Lancers briefly took the lead at the start of the second half but trailed most of the night.
Brookfield East used an 8-2 run to surge ahead 38-32 on a bucket by Graf with 11:51 to play. Sam Rohde hit a 3-pointer to bring Brookfield Central to within 38-35, but Graf answered with a triple of his own to push it to 41-35.
After a layup by Patrick Cartier put the Spartans in front, 54-50, Gage Malensek scored on consecutive possessions to even the score at 54-54 with 1:57 left.
Andres Peralta-Werns tied up Riley LeTourneau for a jump ball on the other end, giving Brookfield Central the ball with 1:27 remaining. The Lancers ran the clock down to 33.9 seconds before calling timeout. Out of the break, Rohde received a handoff from Cole Nau and got the ball in the hands of Malensek.
A block from Brookfield East freshman Sam McGath gave the Spartans the stop they needed late in regulation in a tie game against Brookfield Central on Jan. 13. Andrew Gruman/Now Media Group
Malensek penetrated into the paint with 11.1 seconds remaining and dished the ball off to Nau under the hoop. What looked like an uncontested layup became a difficult shot when Sam McGath recovered to block the shot with 9.7 seconds on the clock. In the scramble for the rebound, the ball went out of bounds off Rohde with 7.5 seconds left.
"We knew we were going to get something good there when Gage has the ball," Brookfield Central coach Dan Wandrey said. "Maybe we went a little early, but if we make the shot, then it is not too early."
After two timeouts, Graf took the inbounds pass up the left side and released a one-handed floater with 3.6 seconds left. The ball hit the back of the rim and bounced off. By the time Cartier gathered the rebound, time had expired.
Brookfield East senior Jake Graf just misses at the buzzer, sending the Spartans into overtime tied at 54-54 with Brookfield Central. Andrew Gruman/Now Media Group
Malensek hit a pair of free throws on Brookfield Central's first possession of overtime, but the Lancers then missed a 3-pointer and committed two turnovers on their next three possessions. That opened the door for Cartier to score 4 consecutive points to put Brookfield East up, 60-56, with 1:58 left in the extra session.
Brookfield Central did force a turnover down 63-60 with 52.3 seconds remaining, but Malensek missed in the lane and East then closed the game out at the free-throw line.
"I think we pretty much got exactly what we deserved," Wandrey said. "I think they played harder than we did, I think they were more prepared than we were, and I think they executed better than we did.
"East deserves a lot of credit. They were better than us tonight. It is hard for me to say, but their good players were good. How many offensive rebounds did they get? How many loose balls did they get? Just their shooting percentage alone was way too high. We've won a lot of games this year by playing good defense and rebounding. We didn't do that today."
The Lancers were paced by Malensek with 27, and Rohde finished with 18 points, but no other Brookfield Central player had more than 4 points.
Graf led Brookfield East with 24 points and eight rebounds. Cartier added 14 points and eight rebounds, Michael Poker scored 8 points, and McGath had 7 points and 11 rebounds.
Not only has Brookfield East improved drastically from last year's 4-20 overall mark and 0-14 conference record, but the Spartans have quickly bought into Rux, who went 213-40 over his final 10 seasons at Manitowoc Roncalli.
"He's brought a tremendous atmosphere," Graf said. "He expects everybody to work, and everybody accepts that. Everybody is getting better. We keep getting better at a team and are now beating teams nobody at the beginning of the year thought we'd beat.
"We keep fixing things in practice and adding things to the offense, which is so new still. We just keep getting better and better. I think we can keep going. This is definitely going to be a good springboard."
A win over Wauwatosa East in the final game of the first half of Greater Metro play on Friday, Jan. 20 would put Brookfield East right in the mix among conference contenders.
"I don't think we've ever looked at the conference race or standings or our record," Rux said. "Our goal is to just keep getting better and to do it one game at a time. Certainly, a game like this makes them believe they can play with anybody. We just have to continue to get better.
"By no means are we there. We are not there yet. We have a lot of improvements to make. But because of our youth, we are going to get a lot better too."