By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
WRIGHTSTOWN – When you play a team as powerful and dominant and — over the past two seasons — as unbeatable as Xavier, you have to try to shake things up, and maybe even abandon a few things that have worked for you throughout the year.
And so, on Thursday night in the Division 3 sectional semifinal at Menasha, Wrightstown, an up-and-down team that likes to score in transition, tried to be more patient in an attempt to slow down a Hawks squad that likes to go even faster. The Tigers also scrapped their usual man defense to try zone — and even a triangle-and-two — to contain a team that came in averaging 92 points a game.
For a little more than 10 minutes, it appeared to be working.
Then, over the final seven minutes of the first half and the first five minutes of the second half, the Hawks demonstrated why it is unlikely any strategy will be successful in the long haul. Snagging steals via a relentlessly hounding defense, launching threes, driving to the basket, delivering no-look passes, collecting offensive rebounds and putting them back in, Xavier demolished an outstanding Wrightstown team, 87-51, to advance to within a game of its fourth consecutive Division 3 championship berth.
“They’re amazing and we knew they were amazing,” said Wrightstown head coach Cory Haese. “They’re loaded with a lot of experience and a lot of skill. We tried a bunch of different things. We played with them for 10 minutes, but you have to make them play five-on-five offense, and that’s just to give you a chance. You can’t defend breakaways and you can’t defend transition wide-open threes from their great shooters.”
It was the Hawks 53rd straight win and they will now take on Valders in the sectional championship. The defending D3 state champs improved to 25-0, while Wrightstown concluded a 20-5 season that included a North Eastern Conference as well as a regional championship.
Xavier used a 37-7 run over a 10-and-a-half-minute span to turn an 18-16 deficit into a rout. That’s right: 37 points over 10 minutes. Only nine of those points came from beyond the arc, which is a testament to the variety of weapons the Hawks can employ. That they misfired on 23 of 32 three-point attempts mattered little; they got so many offensive boards – eventually winning the rebounding war, 47-30 — those misses often turned into putbacks.
“We started in an inverted triangle-and-two and had some good possessions, but it was hard to communicate in it and we gave up some wide-open threes,” Cory Haese said. “Then when we went to a 1-2-2 zone, it left the free throw line open and (Henry Egan) got some deep touches and made us pay. It’s pick your poison. And it’s hard to rebound out of the zone and they offensive rebounded the heck out of it.
“But there was just no way we could man them.”
The Hawks’ scrappy defense allowed Wrightstown sharpshooter Luke Haese several deep – really deep – looks from three and he knocked them down, but he got few touches in the second half, when he scored just four of his 17 points in the final game of a remarkable career. His third three of the game gave Wrightstown its final lead at 18-16 at the 7:12 mark of the first half. The Tigers enjoyed that advantage despite having turned it over nine times, thanks largely to a bunch of wayward threes from the normally deadeye Hawks, as well as six Xavier turnovers.
But Xavier turned it on by scoring nine straight points in less than two minutes and finished off the half on a 23-5 run to take a decisive 39-23 lead into the locker room. Wrightstown suffered 21 turnovers in the contest, 15 on Xavier steals.
Wrightstown appeared intent on being more aggressive in the early going of the second half, and Jeremy Van Zeeland opened with a baseline drive. But Xavier rattled off the next 14 points to put it away.
Saying Goodbye To The Seniors
Leading scorer Hunter Plamann was off the mark from deep, making just 1 of 7, but he turned steals into breakaways and consistently broke down the Wrightstown defense for crossover drives for easy baskets inside or dishes. Plamann finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. That tied for game-high honors Egan, who despite his 6-0 frame, scored inside repeatedly on 8-of-14 shooting. Despite the frigid shooting from deep, Xavier went inside to convert 23 of 35 two-point shots.
The Tigers, meanwhile, weren’t much better from long range, knocking down only 7 of 25 from deep and 18 of 50 overall. James Hansen, one of four Tiger seniors, managed 17 points, five rebounds and four steals, while leading scorer Mayson Hazaert was limited to six points to go along with four rebounds.
“We like to get out and pressure and get out and run and get ahead,” Haese said. “But Xavier is better at that than us so if we’d have come out doing what we’ve done all year, we’ve have gotten beat by 50. So we had to really change some things up and put some limits on some of our players as far as how and when they should shoot.”
Hansen, Jacob Beining and Anthony Feldkemp also saw their last action in a Tiger uniform. Luke Haese closed out his three-year career with a 16.1 points-per-game average that included 161 threes made at a 45-percent accuracy rate. Hansen averaged nearly 10 points a game over three seasons.
“I coached these kids for 10 years,” said Cory Haese, father of Luke. “We’ve had a lot of fun together, a lot of learning. I’m going to miss them dearly. They’re all great kids who are going to be successful. They really bought into the togetherness and they all have special little things we’re going to miss.”
As for the season overall, Cory Haese said nothing, not even a season-ending lopsided loss, takes away from all his Tigers accomplished.
“We got 20 wins and won an NEC championship outright and that’s pretty special,” he said. “And then we won a regional championship and made it to the Sweet 16 of the Division 3 tournament and that’s a heck of an accomplishment.
“I don’t think the kids are thinking about that now, but they’ll look back and see we’ve got a lot to be proud of.”