MADISON — Tamarrein Henderson stood with his thumbs hooked inside his jersey and put his right foot forward — just a couple of inches from where it was — and pulled it back.
He then did the same with his left and alternated them over and over as he looked up at the large picture of an American flag on the scoreboard of the Kohl Center as the National Anthem played.
It’s a calming ritual for the junior, who was hoping to have an impact for the West Salem High School boys basketball team in a WIAA Division 3 semifinal against the Milwaukee Academy of Science on Thursday afternoon.
Boy, did he ever.
There are many players to acknowledge after the Panthers handily defeated a very good MAS team 93-65, but most of those in attendance would point their index fingers at Henderson if asked who made the biggest impact.
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What began with a 3-pointer on West Salem’s third possession became a 25-point performance that also included nine rebounds and four assists as the Panthers (28-1) catapulted themselves into the championship game for the second straight season.
Top-seeded West Salem plays second-seeded Brillion (28-1) in the thirdhing game of Championship Saturday. The Division 5 title game tips off at 11:05 a.m. and is followed by Division 4, then Division 3 contests.
“He was unbelievable,” teammate Carson Koepnick said. “We see it every day in practice. He’s an unbelievable player.”
The 6-foot-3 guard also made believers of the Novas (18-7), who posed a much bigger challenge than their record indicates after close losses to teams like Carmen Northwest and Pewaukee.
“He runs that squad,” said Milwaukee Academy of Science coach Agape Keys, whose team scored more than 100 points six times this season. “Peter (Lattos) is a dog, but Henderson (today) showed us, ‘Hey, I run this team, and I’m very aggressive.'
“... When your bigs are already aggressive, and then your guards get aggressive like that, it’s a hard thing to stop.”
Henderson was relentless at the most important times for the Panthers, who made big plays all afternoon but needed three in particular during the second half to hold off the fourth-seeded Novas.
The first was made by Henderson after a 12-0 run cut West Salem’s 17-point advantage to 52-47 with 15 minutes, 8 seconds left. He stopped the bleeding with a pull-up jumper in the paint.
Senior teammate Brett McConkey made the second one by coming up with the ball on a scramble under the hoop for an offensive rebound. McConkey, who had 18 points and 14 rebounds, put the ball back in the hoop uncontested to give the Panthers a 58-50 lead with 13:06 to go.
“That showed we can fight,” McConkey said, “and that we can battle.”
Henderson re-entered the picture after the Novas cut the deficit to six points again by driving to the hoop and drawing a foul. He hit a free throw to push the lead back to three possessions, and it gradually grew from there.
He was an impact player throughout, but Henderson also scored 19 of his points after Lattos picked up his third foul with 9:06 left in the first half. He also scored West Salem's first basket after the call.
"We all knew we had to step up to the plate at that point," Henderson said. "We also knew he was going to come back and do some good things for us, but we had to step up for a little while."
West Salem looked many places for that help and got it from McConkey, Koepnick (17 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists), Joe Sullivan (10 points) and others.
But Henderson, through pressuring the Novas defense with his penetration, pulling down rebounds and moving the ball effectively when necessary, provided the most.
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX