When Brookfield Central's girls basketball team needed them the most, three senior leaders came through to keep the Lancers season alive.
Caroline Busch scored 5 points in the final minute, Amanda Miller secured a crucial steal and Claire Haynes came up with a block on the final possession, as Brookfield Central survived a 45-43 battle with rival Brookfield East in a WIAA Division 1 regional final Feb. 25.
With their 11th win in their past 12 games, the Lancers claimed their fourth consecutive regional championship and advanced to face second-seeded Oak Creek in a sectional semifinal at Milwaukee South at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 2.
"I think it was pretty obvious that it wasn't our best performance, but at playoff time, it is win and advance," Brookfield Central coach Mallory Liebl said. "At this point, you have to do what you have to do to win. We did a really good job grinding it out. We had our backs against the wall. To their credit, they kept fighting, too, but we got enough big plays at the end to pull out the win."
A back-and-forth second half had East leading, 43-40, as the game entered its final minute. But Busch knocked down a 3-pointer from the right wing to tie the game with 53.3 seconds remaining.
"I noticed I was a little more open then I had been most of the game," Busch said. "They did a good job guarding me. I just decided to shoot it."
After a timeout, Miller swiped the East inbound. She dished it to Busch, who was fouledand made both free throws to put the Lancers up 45-43 with 47.4 seconds left.
Busch, who became Brookfield Central's all-time leading scorer in a regional semifinal win over Milwaukee Ronald Reagan on Feb. 24, scored 10 of her game-high 14 points over the final 7 minutes of the game.
"She stepped up when our season was on the line, and the careers of our seven seniors were on the line," Liebl said. "That was just big time. It is a credit to her teammates, too, for knowing the situation and working to get her the ball."
Emma Ralfs had a good look at what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer on East's ensuing possession, but the ball caromed off the rim and out of bounds with 28.8 seconds to play. The Spartans fouled freshman Anna Mortag, who missed both free-throw tries. There was a scramble for the rebound off the second miss, and a jump ball gave possession to East with 21.6 seconds left.
With 6.8 seconds showing, Ralfs drove around Busch and Mortag and attempted a left-handed layup along the baseline. Haynes read the play and rotated from the foul line to block the shot. She corralled the loose ball, and instead of throwing it back in over her head and risk East getting an easy basket, she held the ball as long as she could before falling out of bounds.
"I knew I was not going to let her get an easy shot," Haynes said. "I held the ball as long as I could before falling out of bounds because I knew it was so close to the end."
It left 1.9 seconds for the Spartans, but Rachel Scott rushed an attempt at a game-winning 3-point try and missed well short as the buzzer sounded.
Central used a 13-0 run to take 23-10 lead on short jumper by Kristin Gaulke with 2:19 left in the first half. Emma Kiekhofer ended the run by hitting the first of two free throws. She missed the second, but Rachel Scott jumped an outlet pass off the rebound and scored to make it 23-13.
Nikki Pink drilled her third triple of the first half with 33 seconds left to bring East to within 23-16 at the break.
The Spartans carried that momentum over into the second half, holding Central to just 1 point over a stretch of 10 minutes, 39 seconds to rattle off a 16-1 run and take a 26-24 lead. It was a battle the rest of the way, and each team traded big shots.
Playing with the poise well beyond her freshman status, Mortag hit 3-pointers to put Central up, 37-36 and 40-39 with 2:19 remaining.
"They were really searching offensively to figure some things out," Goodman said. "We just didn't make enough baskets to pull away. A couple of their players made big plays down the stretch, and we made some mistakes down the stretch. We had an opportunity to win. I felt like it was ours to lose."
Busch led the Lancers with 14 points, and Mortag finished with 13 points, but Central received a giant lift from Haynes, who appears to be returning to her All-Conference form after missing most of the season due to a serious back injury suffered in the second game of the season.
Haynes, who herself wondered if she'd ever play basketball again after fracturing two transverse processes on Nov. 25, scored 12 points with five rebounds.
'We've had a number of hardships that most teams can't even think they would have to face," Haynes said. "It has made us better. Everyone has had to step up. In games like these, it shows. We're blessed to be able to be where we are now, and we're all together."
East, which was led by Ralfs with 13 points and DeValkenaere with 11 points and nine rebounds, did not have a senior on its roster. The Spartans had an up-and-down season and finished at 12-12 overall, but they proved the talent is there with wins over the likes of New Berlin West, Oak Creek and DSHA.
The winner between Central and Oak Creek will face either top-seeded Milwaukee King or fourth-seeded DSHA in a sectional final at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 5 at West Allis Central. The Lancers last made the sectional final in 2014 and made their last state tournament appearance in 2009.
"Four years in a row to be able to play into sectionals is impressive," Liebl said. "It speaks a lot about our girls. Every year, we continue to just battle throughout the season for this. It is not how you start, but it is how you finish.
"Our girls just deserve this after everything they've had to go through and battle through. I couldn't be more proud of their fight."