Any basketball coach knows that often, the most crucial time of a game is the final minutes - and not just of the fourth quarter.
By closing any period on a strong note, teams can give themselves valuable momentum going into the next quarter as well as deal a psychological blow to their opponents.
The South Milwaukee girls proved that on Friday night in a WIAA Division 2 regional semifinal contest against Whitnall, winning the final minute of each of the first three quarters, and that proved to be a key to the Rockets' 59-44 triumph.
The loss ended the season at 16-8 for the Falcons, who had advanced with a 93-9 laugher over Milwaukee Ronald Reagan on Feb. 26.
South Milwaukee ended the first period on Friday with a 3-pointer from Samantha Page to take a 13-12 lead after trailing by four points just moments earlier.
At the end of the second, after a Whitnall turnover, Ellie Pusheck nailed a 3-pointer from the right corner to extend South Milwaukee's advantage to 29-18 at the half.
Bruck makes big play
Whitnall put on a strong rally in the third to come within two points, but the Rockets responded with five straight points from Pusheck. They were up 36-31 when Brittany Bruck made a key play to end the quarter.
The Falcons were working for the last shot of the period when they lost the ball, and Bruck fired up a shot from near midcourt at the buzzer and drew a foul, then sank all three free throws to make it 39-31.
"That was crucial," Whitnall head coach Keith Larson said. "I thought we could run the clock down and hit the last shot of the quarter. They got the ball at midcourt and we fouled (Bruck). She's their leading free-throw shooter, and she put all three of them down. That hurt."
Those nine points in the three final minutes of the periods went a long way for the Rockets, who went on to lose to New Berlin Eisenhower in a regional final game on Saturday, 63-59.
There were other factors in the loss for the Falcons, who saw an eight-game winning streak snapped.
They were out-rebounded by a resounding 36-15, and the Rockets hit 18 of 20 free throws, including 10 of 10 in the fourth period.
"Rebounding just killed us," Larson said. "They beat us on the boards all night long. Most of the time, when you're out-rebounded like that, it's tough to win a game."
Falcons hang tough
The Falcons certainly put forth a game effort.
Trailing 29-18 at the half, they opened the second half with eight straight points. Jackie Gruszka nailed a 3-pointer at the start, then Ashley Markowiak stole the ball near midcourt and went in for a layup to cut it to 29-23.
Markowiak hit a jumper and Rachael Shulta a free throw off an offensive rebound to make it 29-26 before Katelyn Bartlett netted two free throws for South Milwaukee.
Shulta swished a 3-pointer from the right corner to bring Whitnall within 31-29, but Pusheck put back a missed shot, was fouled and hit the free throw for a 34-29 edge.
Pusheck then connected on a jumper for a 36-29 lead. Markowiak answered for the Falcons, but Bruck then made her crucial free throws with no time left in the quarter.
In the fourth, Bruck added four more free throws and Emily Pusheck and Bartlett made baskets as the lead went to 49-36. The Rockets held on from there.
"Once we hit that deficit, it was too much," Larson said. "Give them credit. They played a pretty solid game. They shot the free throws well and they shot the ball well."
Markowiak leads way
Markowiak finished with 16 points and Shulta 11 for the Falcons. Ellie Pusheck had 16 points for South Milwaukee.
Larson was happy with the Falcons, who overcame a number of injuries, illnesses and other setbacks this season.
"I was proud of the girls' effort," he said. "As people, as they go on, they'll be better for what we went through. It was just unfortunate tonight; it just didn't go our way."
In the Feb. 26 contest against Reagan, Whitnall jumped out to leads of 23-2 after one quarter and 52-3 at the half. Markowiak led with 23 points, while Emily Yahnke had 15, Shulta 13 and Candace Pollock 12 points.
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