GREEN BAY — It was the ace up coach Dave Donarski’s sleeve walking into the Resch Center.
It’s something that he and his Aquinas High School girls basketball team have employed with great success over the years. He just needed to get a feel of the WIAA Division 4 championship game Saturday to know the correct time to play it.
When the Blugolds returned to the court after halftime, Donarski used his trump card — a half-court, trapping, 1-3-1 zone that swung the game in Aquinas’ favor for good. The defense sparked what became a defining run, and what was a close game turned into a blowout, as the Blugolds claimed their second state title in a row in a 65-39 win over Melrose-Mindoro.
A rematch from last year’s championship game looked like it would be tight throughout when the Mustangs stayed within three points after a half and were within striking distance despite a tough shooting start. But Aquinas’ trap defense forced seven turnovers in the first 5½ minutes of the second half and propelled a 15-0 run from which Melrose-Mindoro never recovered.
“I think waiting to throw the trap in really helped us, because that’s what pushed our run,” said Aquinas junior Lexi Donarski, one of the keys at the top of that defense. “That’s what created turnovers and transition baskets for us.”
Aquinas was up 20 before the Mustangs pulled things together. Melrose-Mindoro coach Joey Arneson said his team had practiced against the trap in days leading up to the tournament, but they still weren’t fully prepared for what the Blugolds brought.
“At times, it felt like we were playing two teams with all that pressure,” Arneson said.
The Mustangs (26-2) finished with 21 turnovers, 14 of which came in the second half.
“I think it was our intensity. We knew we were in a good spot at halftime, because we do tend to go on runs at the start of the second half,” Lexi Donarski said. “We were confident going in knowing that we just needed to pick up our defense, and we could go on a big run.”
Aquinas’ run was also highlighted by strong shooting. Led by junior Kayla Bahr — whose 5-for-5 performance from 3-point range tied a Division 4 record — the Blugolds made a Division-4 record nine 3-pointers.
Bahr, who Donarski credited as being the team’s “glue” and a versatile player the Blugolds needed play well against Melrose-Mindoro, hit three of her 3s in the second half.
“Definitely once the first one went in, it gave me a ton of confidence. My teammates giving me the ball and trusting me in those situations helped a lot too,” Bahr said.
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Lexi Donarski finished with 22 points, four assists and two steals. Bahr had 17 points and three steals, and Taylor Theusch — who hit 3s on back-to-back possessions to give Aquinas a first-half lead — had 11.
Aquinas became the fifth Division 4 team to repeat as state champion. Dave Donarski said that playing Melrose-Mindoro again in the championship game was only appropriate.
“I feel like at the state tournament, you want to get the two best teams in each division here, and I feel like that was accomplished. Hats off to Melrose-Mindoro, who gave us everything we could handle in that first half,” said Donarski, whose coaching record at Aquinas sits at 120-12.
While the second-half run swung things for good, the work the Blugolds did defensively to limit the Mustangs’ strength inside with the likes of Mesa Byom and Emily Herzberg was equally important.
Dave Donarski said they were trying to pack the lane to cut off lanes to the rim, and defense from players like Bahr and junior Courtney Becker (eight points, 13 rebounds) was crucial to that. The Mustangs had to settle for 3s, and they made 1 of 19 attempts.
“Words can’t describe the feeling that we have right and that they we’re sharing,” Bahr said. “It’s amazing to be able to share it with such a fun group of girls.”
Melrose-Mindoro was led by senior Erika Simmons’ 12 points and nine rebounds. Senior Katie Christopherson added eight points and eight rebounds, and Byom has nine points and six rebounds.
“I couldn’t ask to be part of a better group of girls, especially my last two years, making it to state,” Simmons said.
“Yeah, everybody’s goal when they get here is to win the gold ball, but you can’t be disappointed being a part of one of the best groups to come out of your school and helping leading your team to state for the first time in history.”