By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
this story was updated from Friday’s brief to include full game action and quotes
DENMARK – Up three with six seconds remaining, the plan was for Denmark to foul and force Wrightstown to make a free throw and get an offensive rebound and a game-tying putback – an unlikely sequence for certain and clearly the Vikings’ best strategy.
But events unfolded in an even more unlikely – and freakish – manner over the final four seconds and the Vikings never had a chance to foul. Wrightstown’s Will Braeger then rained in an off-balance, well-guarded three at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The Tigers went on to hand Denmark a devastating loss, 77-73, to join the Vikings at 6-2 in the North Eastern Conference standings, one-half game behind first-place Freedom.
“We got lucky,” said Wrightstown head coach Cory Haese, whose Tigers are trying to defend last year’s league title. “But in the middle of January this is a great win for us. And credit Denmark. They’ve got a great team.”
There was definitely an element of good fortune involved. Zane Short, who early in the game reached the 1,000-point milestone, then added 28 more to finish with 36, had just hit a free throw to put the Vikings up 68-65 with 8.3 seconds left. Needing a three to tie, Wrightstown tried to send a pass through Denmark’s 1-3-1 zone toward Braeger on the left wing. But Braeger slipped and fell and the ball, deflected by Viking defender, seemed headed out of bounds: Game all but over.
Braeger, though, somehow managed to recover the ball in the left corner and launch an off-balance desperation shot over Zach Gezella’s raised arms.
“It hurts,” said sophomore point guard Brennan Miller, who hit some timely buckets on his way to 12 points and five assists. “We had them where we wanted them, up a couple of points with a few seconds left. But it was too quick a play to foul on.”
Indeed, with the loose ball, Denmark was not in a position to foul and by the time it reached Braeger in the corner, Gezella had to avoid fouling or give up three free throws.
“You can’t foul someone who isn’t there,” explained Short. “It’s just too bad it happens on a freak play like that. Crazy things happen. You could tell we wanted that one really bad. You could see how intense we were. We were taking punching and giving punches.”
More Rough Luck
As deflated as the Vikings might have been, Denmark coach Cody Stelmach immediately gathered his team in preparation for the overtime, and Denmark struck first, running more than two minutes off the clock before Miller delivered a pass to Short inside for a 70-68 lead.
But, in an eerily similar manner to the play that sent the game into overtime, Denmark couldn’t quite gain control after several deflections and this time it was Sam Haese taking advantage of the fortuitous bounces, burying a three from the right corner to put Wrightstown back on top. Jeremy Van Zeeland knocked down a pair of free throws, yet again after Denmark got a deflection and a near turnover.
Van Zeeland knocked down all eight free throw attempts over the final 4:11 on the game, including two that narrowed Denmark’s four-point lead to 67-65 with 11 seconds left in regulation.
Van Zeeland knocked down two more to stake the Tigers to a 75-70 lead with 34 seconds left before Gezella delivered his fourth three of the night to whittle the deficit to two with 15 seconds remaining.
Van Zeeland made two more from the line to set the final margin.
“That’s the way the game goes, I guess,” Stelmach said. “We’ve got to find a way to take care of it a little better at the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win it and you’ve got to credit Wrightstown. They hit a really tough shot.”
Short hit three early buckets, then drained a pair of free throws with 11:13 left in the first half for his 999th and 1000th career points. He was immediately honored at halfcourt with his parents and brother, fellow-Viking Donovan.
“I thought back when I was a freshman that if I have four years and am putting in the time, I should be able to achieve it,” Short said of the accomplishment. “As cool as it sounds, I had a long time to do it.”
Player of the Year Battle?
The game was a bit of a showcase for two top contenders for NEC Player of the year in Short and Wrightstown’s Mayson Hazaert, who came into the game averaging nearly 26 a game and was the only Tiger averaging in double figures.
Denmark held him to 22 points before Hazaert fouled out late in regulation. Jack Satori, Denmark’s top shutdown defender did a good job on the 6-4 senior but also eventually fouled out in the process. The Vikings used a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap nearly the entirety of the second half, forcing 10 second-half turnovers but also leaving the baseline vulnerable for the lightning-quick Hazaert.
“I’ve seen Mayson throughout the AAU circuit and we’ve been playing against each other since middle school,” Short said. “We know each other pretty well.”
The first half was a defensive-minded, see-saw battle. Denmark led 19-11 midway through the period, but the Tigers used a 9-3 run to carry a 30-29 lead into the locker room. The Tigers opened the second half on a 10-2 run, forcing several Denmark turnovers, and led 40-31 with 15:38 left in the game.
Starting with a Gezella three, a Satori layup and three straight buckets inside by Short, Denmark closed the gap to 43-42. But Wrightstown kept them at arms-length, twice extending the lead to five. Denmark finally took its first second-half lead – 58-56 — on a Pat Suemnick dunk and a Short layup with six minutes to play.
Trailing 61-59, Denmark launched a 7-0 run started by a Short rebound basket and four free throws, and the Vikings led 66-61 with 1:25 remaining. But Denmark missed six free throws over the final 5:43 of regulation.
“Maybe fatigue was a factor,” said Stelmach, whose Vikings essentially played just six all night, while the Tigers on occasion brought in five replacements at once. “But I thought our guys competed and played well. We just have to hit free throws. Any one of those misses there at the end would have won the game for us.”
Wrightstown was able to effectively deny the ball to 6-8 postman Pat Suemnick, who managed just eight points and nine boards. Satori had four points, five rebounds and four assists. If there was an individual bright spot for Denmark on Friday – apart from Short’s 36 points, nine boards and three steals – it was sophomore point guard Miller, who has stepped in more than ably for injured Denmark star Brady Jens.
Both Stelmach and Short couldn’t say enough about him.
“From the first game to this game he has grown immensely,” Short said. “His poise out there while he’s being pressured, it’s really beyond his years. It’s so good to see him play the way he’s played.”
Added Stelmach: “I trust Brennen with whatever we ask him to do. He made a lot of heady plays, attacking the rim when he had opportunities and not forcing anything. Brennen’s a kid who’s going to really help us down the stretch and when Brady comes back (tentatively, Jan. 19 at Oconto), he’ll give us that sixth man that’s going to be really beneficial for us.”
Denmark made, unofficially, 28 of 58 shots, including just 6 of 20 from deep. Wrightstown finished 27 of 50, 8 of 24 from three.
“We talked all week that great players can compete against great individuals and I tell you, Denmark has some great players,” Haese said.
The Vikings host Waupaca on Thursday.