Janesville Craig’s boys basketball players spent four days etching a game plan into their brains.
Between the practice time and the fact the Cougars had split a pair of games against Middleton during the regular season, they were as confident as an 11th-seeded team can be heading into the postseason.
They showed it Friday night.
Senior Jack Huml scored 19 points, Craig executed its plan to make life beyond the 3-point arc a struggle and the Cougars did nearly all the little things right in a 61-52 victory over sixth-seeded Middleton in a WIAA Division 1 regional semifinal at Middleton High.
Craig (11-12) plays at third-seeded Madison La Follette (18-5) at 7 p.m. tonight.
“We expected to win this game after drilling for four days straight,” Huml said. “We really liked this draw.
“Knowing that we played them both (Middleton and La Follette) two times this season and split, we knew we can play with anyone.”
Huml scored eight consecutive points during one rally in the first half, and Craig led 30-22 at halftime.
The Cardinals opened the second half by making a concerted effort to go to the post offensively. Six-foot-seven center Parker Van Buren—who scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half—had his way inside early, and Middleton briefly took a pair of leads.
Craig trailed 39-38 with just under nine minutes remaining when it regained its composure for good. Senior Nick Lynch (12 points) made a pair of free throws to snag the lead back and spark a 10-0 run. The spurt included a pull-up jumper from senior Aaron Leverson, a put-back by Lynch, a 3-pointer by sophomore Angelo Rizzo and a free throw by Leverson that made it 48-39 with 5:43 to play.
“They had a little momentum, but our guys really battled back,” Craig coach Ben McCormick said. “They (Middleton) obviously made an emphasis to go to the post.
“But our goal was to take away their 3-point shooters, and in the second half they didn’t have any. So I give our kids credit. They really executed our game plan defensively.”
Middleton made just 4 of 17 3-point attempts overall and missed on all seven tries in the second half.
The Cardinals trailed 48-42 and had three possessions to claw closer surrounding the four-minute mark, but Craig’s defense stood tall.
Lynch grabbed an offensive rebound and delivered another stick-back layup with 2:50 left, and Huml’s transition layup 38 seconds later all but put the game away.
“Lynch was a huge key to this game,” Huml said, citing an offensive play the Cougars added to their arsenal this week.
Craig turned the ball over just seven times and went 14 of 18 from the free-throw line—all of the attempts coming in the second half.
And the Cougars got contributions across the board, which has been the case in their best games this season. Senior point guard Aaron Leverson added 11 points, while Rizzo finished with eight and had several critical defensive rebounds late.
“We weren’t perfect, but it’s not easy to win on the road,” McCormick said. “We take of the basketball and go 14-for-18 from the line, and we give ourselves a chance to win. I’m proud of the way our guys competed.”
Now the Cougars earn a rubber match with La Follette. The Lancers beat the Cougars 91-75 in their first Big Eight Conference meeting this season, but Craig won 73-70 in overtime on its home floor in the rematch.
The Cougars will not have four consecutive days to prepare, but they hope their confidence can carry over into a regional final.
“Ball pressure and just making shots,” Huml said when asked about the keys to winning a regional title. “We’re a very good shooting team, and when we’re on, we can compete with anyone. We’ll be ready.”
CRAIG 61, MIDDLETON 52
Craig (61)—Huml 6-4-19, Scoville 1-0-2, Bertagnoli 3-0-7, Rizzo 2-2-8, Fieiras 1-0-2, Leverson 3-5-11, Lynch 4-3-12. Totals: 20-14-61.
Middleton (52)—Thomas 2-0-6, Close 3-0-7, Scher 1-0-2, Boyle 2-0-5, Klubertanz 4-5-13, Van Buren 9-1-19. Totals: 21-6-52.
Janesville Craig 30 31—62
Middleton 22 30—52
3-point goals—Craig 7 (Huml 3, Rizzo 2, Bertagnoli, Lynch), Middleton 4 (Thomas 2, Close, Boyle). Free throws missed—Craig 4, Middleton 5. Total fouls—Craig 12, Middleton 17.