Central brings fight to favored Kaukauna

The Westosha Central student section shows its frustration during the second half of Friday’s game. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

 

MADISON – On Friday afternoon on the grandest stage of boys high school basketball in the state of Wisconsin, the Westosha Central Falcons proved they ain’t afraid of no Ghosts.

The Ghosts in this case are the Galloping Ghosts of Kaukauna, who used several pivotal runs and the all-world talent of newly-crowned Mr. Basketball Jordan McCabe to hang on for a 75-63 victory in a WIAA Division 2 state semifinal at the Kohl Center.

My “Ghostbusters” reference, cheesy as it is, and yes, I know, it’s cheesy, is very relevant in this case.

The Falcons, who finished their most successful boys basketball run in school history, could’ve very easily been afraid.

Where do we even begin?

Kaukauna is the No. 1-ranked team in the state and is considered by some the best team in Wisconsin regardless of division.

McCabe is a Division 1 recruit at West Virginia University, and on Friday morning news broke he beat out Kentucky recruit Tyler Herro for the player of the year in Wisconsin, Mr. Basketball.

The 5-foot-10 dynamo averages 26.6 points, 7.8 assists and 6 rebounds per game, and he is every bit as advertised with limitless range, quick handles and the ability to get anywhere he wants on the court. Most importantly, he makes his teammates better by finding them in open spots.

And it was Westosha’s first-ever state tournament appearance, something that can understandably shake a teenage player to his core.

But Central never wavered, and though the high-octane Ghosts stormed out of the locker room by hitting 3-pointers and living up to their hype, the Falcons countered punch for punch.

Nic Frederick (left) and Jaeden Zackery strategize moments before the start of the second half. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Central stuns Ghosts in first half

It almost seemed as though Kaukauna was surprised at how quick and athletic the Falcons were after an Adam Simmons layup capped an 11-5 run and gave Central a 20-19 lead.

Westosha coach James Hyllberg said his guys had a morning shoot-around at a local Madison high school, and it helped ease their nerves.

“I knew it was time to go,” said Jaeden Zackery, who scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. “I knew people were doubting us since they’re the top-ranked team and nobody really knows about us. We’re just from Paddock Lake. But we came out and played like we knew how to. We just tried our hardest. It was a good game, they played better.”

Westosha senior Cooper Brinkman, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, was hitting his outside shot in the first half, and layups by Simmons, Zackery and Joey Gilliland knotted things at 32-32 before Kaukauna closed the half with a crucial 8-0 run.

Though his shot wasn’t falling in the first half, McCabe’s presence alone opened things up for his teammates, who hit eight triples. The Ghosts finished with 10 triples, and five players scored in double figures.

“Balance was really important tonight, because not one of our guys took off, like we do on most nights,” said McCabe, who finished with 20 points and 11 assists despite 5-for-17 shooting. “Not only does defense really impact that, but the ability to spread it out and them not knowing who was going to attack and get a bucket is really important.”

Kaukauna’s momentum carried over to the second half, where it built a 59-50 lead with 10:38 to play. But once again, the Falcons scratched and clawed their way back in it.

Zackery calmly drained a 15-footer from the top of the key before snatching a steal and cruising down court for a layup. He added a free throw, and Westosha cut the deficit to 61-55 at the 7:05 mark.

Senior point guard Nic Frederick, who finished with seven points, eight assists and four rebounds, did his best along with Zackery and Simmons to frustrate McCabe and slow the Ghosts’ high-speed attack.

“Obviously, you want to win that game,” Frederick said outside the locker room after the game. “We were in it, and we could’ve won. Shots didn’t fall, though, and things didn’t go our way. Now, though, I think we’re satisfied with our accomplishments. We wanted it, we just didn’t get it done.”

With tired legs, shots began to come up short, and the Ghosts finished the Falcons with a demoralizing 10-0 run to push the lead to 71-55 with two minutes left. Eric Carl and Donovan Ivory made three baskets, and McCabe hit four free throws.

Meanwhile, the Falcons missed 11 consecutive shots, including four 3-pointers.

Westosha got great looks and had opportunities, but the ball simply wasn’t going in. A six-man rotation playing from behind most of the game will catch up to a team eventually, and Kaukauna’s balance and consistency were too much.

“We countered their quickness,” Brinkman said. “The biggest blow was when we got the game within two or tied it, then they hit a couple threes and get it back to 8 or 10, that kind of sucked.”

“We went punch for punch with them to start,” said junior Dylan Anderson, who scored seven.

“McCabe did a great job of drawing and kicking,” Frederick added. “He really facilitated for his guys. They got a lot of good buckets, and we just couldn’t answer.”

Central was held to 36 percent from the floor and 15 percent (3-19) from beyond the arc. Kaukauna shot 48 percent from the floor.

Westosha finished its first state tournament run with a 20-5 record. Kaukauna improved to 24-3.

 

Jordan McCabe works around a screen, while Zackery fights to stay in front of him. Despite 5-for-17 shooting, McCabe, the 2018 Mr. Basketball, still scored 20 points and dished 11 assists. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Community rallies around dream team

Countless hours of sacrifice, hard work and dedication from as early as fourth grade paid off, and the Falcons are officially on the map. After two straight Southern Lakes titles, the Falcons’ encore this season yielded their furthest run in the playoffs.

“It was pretty cool to see the whole town get behind us,” Brinkman said. “We had a lot of support from everyone from different schools and past players.”

“It was amazing to make history our senior year, and it was crazy playing out there,” Gilliland said. “It was a different atmosphere.”

It was the first SLC state berth since 2008 (Badger), and Anderson said it was an honor to put the

Dylan Anderson fights for a shot Friday. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

conference “on the map.”

“We’ll always remember this as one of the greatest moments of high school,” Anderson said.

Frederick said the team was thinking of state after last year’s sectional final loss.

“Playing with these guys is the most fun I’ve had playing basketball,” he said. “The greatest season in Central history is just fitting.”

“It took a lot of work. We realized the amount of work we had to put in after losing last year.”

Head coach James Hyllberg has revitalized a program and inspired a community to follow the Falcons in his three years.

What’s been the secret to their success?

“We preach hard work in practice,” Hyllberg said. “All my guys are high-character, respectful, hard-working kids. None of these guys have attitude problems, they’re all kids that you’d see in the street and they’d walk up to you and shake your hand.”

“They’re just polite kids, and it speaks volumes of where they come from. It makes it that much more enjoyable for me as a coach.”

With Zackery, Simmons and Anderson back in the fold, the once-unknown team from little Paddock Lake could very well be back at the Kohl Center in 2019.

Zackery, who is emerging as a star and will be counted on to run the show as a senior next year, said the state loss will only make the Falcons better.

“We’re just going to keep pushing ourselves, this will help us get better,” Zackery said. “Especially since we played better talent, that shows us what we’re made of. We’re only losing three seniors, so it will be like the same team back next year. All of us juniors have been playing together since fifth, sixth grade, so we have a good chemistry.”

“We’re going to keep working from here and remember this moment.”

“It’s exciting for the guys for next year,” Hyllberg said. “This experience is for these guys, so if we get back, the nerves won’t be as strong. And it keeps guys hungry, because now they know what we can do.”

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