ONALASKA — When Onalaska High School girls basketball junior Olivia Gamoke picked up her fourth foul and headed to the bench with 14 minutes, 22 seconds left in the second half of the Hilltoppers’ WIAA Division 2 regional final against Central on Saturday night, teammate Lexi Miller was nervous as their team clung to a three-point lead. So was Lauren Arenz.
“Obviously, (Gamoke) is one of our other point guards, and she was shooting pretty well tonight and she’s a really good attacker,” Arenz said. “So I was a little nervous, but I knew that we had bench players and other teammates that could step up.”
Arenz was right.
After an offensive rebound, Arenz hit a 3-pointer to push Onalaska’s lead back to six points with 13:08 to play. The Red Raiders, who swept the Hilltoppers in the regular season, responded with five straight points, but Miller buried a 3 on the next possession, the first of 13 unanswered points for Onalaska.
That proved to be the knockout blow, and the second-seeded Hilltoppers pulled away from third-seeded Central for a 47-34 win at Charles Deeth Fieldhouse. Onalaska has now won six straight regional titles and will play fourth-seeded New Richmond in the sectional semifinal next Thursday.
“It’s amazing because we did lose the first few times (to Central), which we’re not used to,” said Miller, who had a game-high 11 points. “It was awesome to come out and play our basketball, the style we like, the style we’re used to. Always feels good to get a ‘dub.’”
For the Hilltoppers, that starts on the defensive end, as was the case Saturday night. But instead of the team’s usual man-to-man and on-the-ball pressure, Onalaska coach Shane Schmeling turned to a 2-3 zone for the just the second time this season, and the Red Raiders struggled.
Central was often stagnant on the perimeter and settled for 3s and outside jumpers. Even when the Red Raiders (17-7) tried to drive, the Hilltoppers (19-5) seemed to seal every gap.
Central was 7-of-20 (35 percent) from 3 but just 12-of-39 (31 percent) from the floor and managed only four points in the paint. The zone also seemed to limit the Red Raiders on the offensive glass.
“We came in wanting to switch things up a bunch, like about every three possessions change up,” Schmeling said. “But once we got into that 2-3, it looked like they were uncomfortable.”
“We stood around, I think, way too much,” Central coach Quartell Roberson said. “That’s not who we are.”
Onalaska took advantage midway through the second half.
After Central senior Rachel Peterson knocked down a jumper to cut the Hilltoppers’ lead to one point with 10:53 to play, the Red Raiders scored just six points the rest of the way. Onalaska, meanwhile, hit its stride on offense.
Miller buried a 3, then Emma Breidenbach connected from deep. Arenz finished a layup, Breidenbach did the same, and Ava Smith hit a 3 to push the Hilltoppers’ lead to 42-28 with 6:42 to play.
Onalaska led by double digits the rest of the way, and Arenz, Miller and Gamoke hit free throws down the stretch to seal the game.
Arenz finished with 10 points, and Gamoke chipped in seven, including two 3s. Breidenbach hit two 3s and had eight points. The Hilltoppers were 8-for-20 from beyond the arc.
“I thought we got great bench minutes tonight,” Schmeling said. “Emma Breidenbach was huge for us. I thought Lexi Miller took over the game at times, and Lauren hit some big free throws down the stretch, which is what you’d like to see out of your seniors.”
Onalaska led 21-19 at the break after ending the first half on an 8-2 run. Central scored 11 of the game’s first 15 points but struggled as the Hilltoppers settled into their zone.
Ava Parcher and Lily Wehrs had nine points apiece for the Red Raiders, and Peterson added eight in the final game of her high school career.
“This team has accomplished multiple things this season that they can be proud of,” Roberson said. “First team since the ‘95 team to win the first three games, winning 17 games in a season hasn’t been done in quite awhile, second in conference, they still accomplished a lot.”
The Hilltoppers advance to face New Richmond (19-5), which beat top-seeded River Falls 41-38 on Saturday, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Central.
“(Jessica) Hagman has been a really good player for them for a few years; they’ve got a really quick point guard,” Schmeling said of his team’s next opponent. “But I mean, at this point, there’s no bad teams left. We’re going to have to play as well as we did tonight or better to advance.”
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