MADISON — His team was a little more than 6 minutes away from a possible WIAA Division 3 state championship, and it was clinging to a four-point lead against a team that had wins in all 11 of its previous state games. Evan Pederson knew it was Koenig time for the Aquinas High School boys basketball team at the Kohl Center on Saturday.
“He’s such a dynamic player, and there was no one on the floor who could guard him,” Pederson said of sophomore teammate Bronson Koenig. “I said, ‘This is your game to take over.’
“It was time.”
Less than 1 minute later, Racine St. Catherine’s tied the score. Koenig then glided smoothly behind a screen near the top of the key, caught a pass from Mike Conway and drilled a 3-pointer.
That shot started an eight-point run that allowed the top-ranked Blugolds to knock off the ninth-ranked Angels 40-34 and exorcise the demons from two previous championship losses to them.
Koenig, who had six points, two steals, two rebounds and two assists in the fourth quarter, was the driving force behind finishing off a victory that produced the program’s third state championship since 2003.
He also didn’t have to be prodded to become the focal point.
“I knew I could do it,” said Koenig, who scored a game-high 15 points and had five rebounds and four assists. “I just believed in myself and got it done.”
The last of Koenig’s three 3-pointers, which gave the Blugolds (27-1) a 35-32 advantage with 4:39 remaining, was the biggest shot of a game that had five lead changes and was tied nine times.
The Angels (24-4), who have won five Division 3 titles since 2005, tried to stop Koenig with Alex Grycowski in a man-to-man defense and with a 1-3-1 zone.
While he wasn’t an offensive explosion, the point guard kept his cool and played in control against everything St. Catherine’s (24-4) tried to do. He was patient as the Blugolds looked for good shots and didn’t force a thing.
Aquinas worked cohesively and as a team to move the ball on possessions. Blugolds coach Rick Schneider said it took some time to build that camaraderie, and that the players started putting themselves on the same page around mid-January.
Senior Jimmy Ancius, who had six points and six rebounds, said the seniors learned to trust the younger players and that they came through for the team throughout the weekend.
He added that Pederson’s words of encouragement to Koenig were necessary and probably welcomed by the sophomore.
“Even if he doesn’t believe what you say, he pretends to listen to you,” Ancius said with a smile. “He’s smart enough to decide whether it’s good advice or not.
“Today, he listened.”
The Blugolds held the Angels to 38.1-percent shooting and forced 13 turnovers. Aquinas converted those turnovers into 14 points.
Ancius put the responsibility of 6-foot-6 Jordan Fouse on his shoulders and held the Angels’ leading scorer to two points on 1-for-8 shooting. Fouse averages 15 points per game.
Pederson had two steals, and Conway forced a jump ball for another turnover on three St. Catherine’s possessions with less than 3 minutes left.
“I thought the team did an excellent job of following through on our defensive scheme,” Schneider said. “I was really proud of that.”
He was also proud of how his team made the transition from an up-tempo 85-52 semifinal victory over Lakeside Lutheran on Friday to Saturday’s slugfest against a team that was oh so familiar.
“They’ve gotten us the last two times we’ve played ’em, so it was nice to get ’em,” Schneider said. “Yeah. No question.”