With Milwaukee Riverside surging, Brookfield Central had no problem slowing things down, and that meant putting the ball in the hands of a talented sophomore.
Gage Malensek helped the Lancers control the pace, hit 7 of 8 free-throw attempts in the final minute and scored 28 points to lead top-seeded Brookfield Central to a 63-52 victory over fourth-seeded Riverside in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal March 9 at Milwaukee South Division High School.
"He's only a sophomore, and I hate to say it, but we have Gage," Brookfield Central coach Dan Wandrey said. "He's hard to hold. We said if we were got a little bit of a lead, not that we were totally icing it, but we wanted to put him in some advantageous positions to score himself or create for his teammates.
"He's a tough kid. As good as he is as a player and physically strong, he's that tough mentally, too. He wants the ball in those situations, and he's been in them all year."
Brookfield Central (23-2) advanced to play in its first sectional final since 2008 where it will face second-seeded Milwaukee Vincent (20-4) at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 11 at West Allis Central.
Riverside star Terrence Lewis knocked down a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game but scored just 3 additional points the rest of the first half, as the defense of Cole Nau left the Iowa State commit frustrated most of the night. Malensek got to the rim at will early and went 6 for 7 in the first half to score 13 points and help the Lancers take a 26-19 advantage into halftime.
"We always talk about it being basic basketball," Malensek said. "With Sam Rohde, Andres (Peralta-Werns) and Cole (Nau) in the corners, they are going to help off of me and leave open a 3 or I'm going to get a layup."
Lewis was whistled for his fourth foul on a charging call with 16:15 to play and the Lancers holding a 26-21 lead. Brookfield Central began the second half just 1 for 8 from the field before Sam Rohde hit a pair of 3-pointers during an 8-0 run that made it 36-25 with 12:14 left.
Rohde missed all three of his shot attempts in the first half but drilled three triples and scored 11 in the second half.
"His first two years, he was a guy that if he missed his first two shots, he'd go into a shell," Wandrey said. "This year's Sam doesn't let the results of his early shots affect him. You can just see it. Every shot he takes looks like he is going in."
The Lancers outscored the Tigers, 14-9, in the 6 minutes, 9 seconds Lewis sat with four fouls and went up, 46-37, on a triple by Rohde with 7:54 to play. But Brookfield Central then went into a drought, going the next 7 minutes, 11 seconds without a field goal. Riverside was able to get out in transition for a 3-point play by Carlos Curtis and a layup by Lewis to pull within 46-42.
With 5:50 remaining, the Lancers began to deliberately slow the pace with Malensek running the offense. The decision paid off, as Brookfield Central took time off the clock eventually forced Riverside to foul.
Lewis cut Brookfield Central's lead to 48-46 with 3:14 left and then blocked consecutive Malensek shots off drives by the sophomore. Rohde was fouled with 1:50 remaining and hit both free-throw attempts. The Lancers forced a contested 3-point attempt by Aaron Greer, but Curtis grabbed the offensive rebound and scored to make it 50-48 with 1:34 on the clock.
Malensek knocked down two free throws with 1:11 left, but Greer answered to bring the Tigers to within 52-50. Greer was then whistled for a foul holding Malensek before the inbounds pass, and Curtis was hit with a technical foul with 54.5 seconds to play.
The personal foul was Riverside's ninth as a team, so Malensek shot the bonus first and hit both foul shots. He then split the two technical free throws, putting Brookfield Central up, 55-50.
Brookfield Central also received the ball, forcing Riverside to foul. Andres Peralta-Werns missed his first attempt but hit the second to push the lead to 56-50 with 53.1 seconds left.
"It was really just grit and toughness," Malensek said. "They melt down at 35 minutes, but we played the full 36 minutes. That was the difference in the game."
After Lewis hit two free throws to make it 56-52, Rohde threw a home-run pass the length of the court to Cole Nau, who hit the layup for Brookfield Central's first field goal since Rohde's 3-pointer with 7:54 left, and was fouled. He completed the 3-point play, which sealed the win at 59-52 with 43.4 seconds remaining.
Malensek finished 10 for 18 from the field and also had five rebounds and five assists. Andres Peralta-Werns scored 14 points, Rohde added 13 points and Nau had 6 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
Curtis kept Riverside in the game with 20 points and eight rebounds. Nau and the Lancers held Lewis, who entered averaging 26.6 points per game, to just 12 points, matching his lowest scoring output of the season.
"Cole is undersized and a sophomore," Malensek said. "A lot of people don't think he would be able to do that. But he plays a lot of outside basketball and AAU basketball and he's just ready and tough."
Standing in the way of Brookfield Central and its ninth trip to the state tournament in program history and its first since 2008 is Vincent, which tied with Riverside and Milwaukee Washington for the City Conference title at 11-1. The Vikings advanced to the sectional final with an 82-42 rout of sixth-seeded Franklin.
"None of our guys have been in this position before," Rohde said. "We're happy with how far we've come, but we're not content yet."