Most of this season, the Whitnall boys basketball team has prided itself on fast starts, forcing the opponent to play catch-up all night.
That formula paid off in 22 victories, the Woodland Conference Black Division championship and a WIAA Division 2 regional crown.
Pius XI, however, turned the tables on the Falcons on Thursday night by jumping to an early lead of its own, then surrendering it just one time. The Popes built a double-digit advantage in the second half and held off a late Whitnall rally for a 66-62 victory in a sectional semifinal contest at Greenfield High School.
The Falcons ended their splendid season at 22-3, while Pius improved to 22-3 and will take on Milwaukee Washington on Saturday in a sectional championship contest.
The Popes went inside early and often in the opening half, either scoring on drives to the basket or on back-door layups after players slipped behind the Falcons defense.
“In the first half, we didn’t play defense,” Whitnall head coach Kent Kroupa said. “We didn’t switch, we didn’t communicate well enough on the defensive end. Back door is just screens off the back, and we didn’t switch on them.”
Pius senior guard Carrington Love tallied six points in the first quarter and senior forward Larry Fitzgerald added four as the Popes assumed a 14-8 advantage after the period.
Stephen Pelkofer and Luke Mentkowski both netted 3-point field goals in the second quarter to help the Falcons tie the game at 18-18. Back-to-back baskets by Love gave the Popes a 24-20 advantage, then Ian Ray nailed a 3-pointer and Pelkofer scored in the lane as Whitnall took its first – and only – lead of the game at 25-24.
Love then went to work. He scored on a drive and on the final possession of the half, dribbled down the clock to six seconds and pulled up for a 3-pointer to put Pius up 29-25 at the half.
In the first half, Pius hit a blistering 74 percent from the floor on 14-of-19, much of which came on layups and easy inside shots.
“The whole tempo and attitude started in the first half,” Kroupa said. “We didn’t do much about that, even though we were only down by four at halftime. That had to be corrected, and we didn’t get that done.”
Love and Fitzgerald both scored two baskets as the lead went to 37-25 early in the third.
At that point, Kroupa made a defensive switch, putting Pelkofer on Love, who to that point had totaled 19 points.
That slowed Pius down a bit and the Falcons got back into the game with an 8-0 run to close the third period. Bryan Nagy hit two free throws, then Mentkowski drilled a 3-pointer and made three free throws after being fouled shooting a 3-pointer. Suddenly, it was 42-38 heading into the fourth.
The Popes went up by seven on a three-point play from senior center Jamale Robinson, then Mentkowski and Ray connected on 3-pointers to trim the margin to 48-47.
Pius, though, answered. Fitzgerald got loose on the inside for a big three-point play, then took a pass from Love for another basket to make it 53-47.
“We really felt that we could run our sets,” Pius head coach Joel Claassen said, “and we ran them, at times, to perfection. We realized Larry Fitzgerald had what we thought was an advantage on a set. We got him on the blocks, and he’s so strong that he finished and we got that ‘and-one.’ That was a big set. From there on, we executed.”
The lead went to 10 again on a free throw by Love, but the Falcons kept hitting from the outside. Ray netted another 3-pointer and Mentkowski hit two more, his fourth and fifth of the night, to draw Whitnall within 64-60 with 15.1 seconds left.
Pius senior guard Matthew Fox-Whitaker made two free throws, making Nagy’s final basket meaningless.
“We got it close, we made some threes, but that was kind of like desperation, trying to get back and hope you can get the score down,” Kroupa said. “We couldn’t get into the offensive flow that we needed.
“It was a combination of everything. We needed a better tempo, better flow. They (the Popes) run a lot of nice sets, they do a lot of good things. We just didn’t play well enough to win tonight. You play 25 games, and you hope when you get to this stage and this point, you don’t play a bad one. Tonight, we didn’t play a good basketball game.”
Mentkowski finished with 22 points, 17 in the second half, while Ray and Nagy each totaled 11.
Love racked up 26 points and Fitzgerald 21 for Pius, which shot 71 percent for the game.
“When you have a point guard like him, he’s tough to defend straight up,” Claassen said of Love, who will attend the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay next season. “They put Pelkofer on him in the second half. We recognized that, he understood his situation to get his teammates the ball and he started to distribute more in the second half. We’re very fortunate to have Carrington.”
Kroupa praised the players who put together such a fine season for the Falcons.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team,” he said. “The seven seniors have been outstanding. The overall effort all year long has been exceptional. Tonight’s hard; you never like to lose. There will be a little pain for a while, and then life goes on. We adjust and we just go on.”