The fans had spilled onto the court at Central High School’s Mark Sutton Memorial Gymnasium last Saturday.
Bangor girls basketball coach Merlin Jones stood amid the sea of people accepting a steady flow of pats on the back as Cardinals supporters congratulated him on getting his team back to the WIAA Division 5 state tournament for the second consecutive season.
Asked about the emotions of the moment, Jones wore a wry smile and said, “It’s a relief.”
He laughed after delivering the line, but it didn’t diminish the truth of what he said.
Consider that Bangor (24-3) — the second seed in the Division 5 tournament heading into Friday’s 10:45 a.m. semifinal against third-seeded Clayton (24-3) at the Resch Center in Green Bay — has carried with it the weight of expectation all season. With the talent returning from Bangor’s roster a season ago, many around the state penciled the Cardinals into the state tournament again before the first ball had been tipped.
But the growth the Cardinals showed this year after falling in the state semifinal a year ago was put on display during the sectional semifinal against Shullsburg.
The start of the second half against the Miners was eerily similar to Bangor’s state loss to Loyal last season — the Cardinals were getting good shots, but they just weren’t falling. Against Loyal, the scoring drought lasted nearly 14 minutes. Frustration built on the floor and on the Bangor bench until the deficit had grown too large and time remaining to come back too short before giving way to resignation that the season was over.
Against Shullsburg, with the first five Cardinals shots missing and four of them coming within 3 feet of the basket, Bangor turned that frustration into defense. A handful of forced turnovers, keyed by stellar defense in the post by Bangor senior Emma Wittmershaus, sparked an 11-0 run that kept the Cardinals in the lead for good. They held the Miners without a field goal for nearly 8 minutes, before a layup in the final minute broke that streak.
Jones said that he and his staff have confidence in all of their players as defenders, and Bangor’s selective use of full-court pressure at key moments against Shullsburg created uncontested layups.
Madessa Collins wasn’t fully aware of the magnitude of what she was watching at the Kohl Center a decade ago, but she knew it was exciting.
The Cardinals will need to have a similar defensive performance against Clayton, a team making its third consecutive state appearance. Led by a young core group of players — Clayton has no seniors on its roster — the Bears are almost an inverse of Bangor.
Clayton’s strengths lie on the perimeter: A quarter of the team’s made baskets are 3-pointers, and they shoot 36.5 percent from 3 as a team. The Bears average 12.1 steals per game. Led by 5-foot-9 junior Alison Leslie (18.0 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) and 5-7 junior Kailey Ketz (13.3 ppg, 42.2 percent 3-point shooter), Clayton will put pressure on Bangor’s backcourt to be sound defensively and not lose sight of 3-point shooters like it did in stretches against Shullsburg.
Conversely, Bangor’s advantage is on the interior, and that starts with Wittmershaus. The 6-3 UW-Milwaukee recruit leads the Cardinals in points (16.7) and rebounds (8.9) per game, and while she can step outside and knock down 3s, she’s most dominant when she gets to the basket. She’s the program’s all-time leading scorer at 1,407 points, and should have a sizeable height advantage on Friday — no Clayton player is listed above 5-10.
Bangor senior Jaclynn Freit (11.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) adds more scoring punch inside, and junior guard Ashlie Lockington (7.6 ppg) has a quick first step to get by defenders and make things happen from there.
“We have experience from last year at the state tournament,” Freit said on Saturday. “This year, we’re going to back and get redemption for what we had last year.”
Wittmershaus echoed that sentiment.
“We’ve got the determination,” she said. “Last year didn’t end how we wanted it to end, so to get back to the Resch Center, we’re going for that one more game and going for the gold.”