By KELLY FENTON
The Denmark News
Updated from Thursday brief
DENMARK – There came a moment late in the sectional semifinal at Chilton High School when it felt like it was all bleeding away from the Denmark Vikings.
The energy, the poise, the lead, the season.
They’d scored just two baskets over the first 12 minutes of the second half and none in nearly eight minutes. Valders was ratcheting up the pressure on both ends, forcing turnover after turnover out of its full-court press and getting to the basket and the free-throw line virtually every time down on the offensive end.
Denmark was receiving no benefits of he doubt from the refs, appeared to be unable or unwilling to attack offensively and inbounds passes had become a thing of great peril.
The predominantly Valders crowd was in a frenzy.
“We talked about it at halftime, not to play tentative,” said 6-5 wing man Zane Short. “But it kind of comes with the territory. If you have that lead, you want to slow things down.”
A second-half lead of 13 was, following a 12-1 Valders run, down to a single point.
Zane Short held the ball on the left elbow, his defender inching back to guard against Short’s signature move, a drive to the basket.
Short, like his team over the entirety of the second half, was hesitant. The defender didn’t press and Zane Short decided to let fly from 12 feet.
While that bucket that ended Valders’ 8-0 run hardly sealed Denmark’s 56-49 that propelled them into Saturday’s sectional final, it had to be considered Denmark’s biggest basket of the year. More big baskets would be needed, and this senior-laden Denmark team found ways to deliver them, but that was the moment that probably extended the season.
“Eventually we settled in and when Zane hit that jumper, that was a big moment for us,” said Denmark head coach Cody Stelmach, whose Vikings improved to 21-4. “They’ve been through this enough in their lives and that’s why it’s nice to have five seniors and a sophomore who is smart and heady. We’ve been in this position. Our guys just needed to relax.
“I was happy with Zane stepping up there at the end.”
Short agreed that the shot seemed to help to re-focus Denmark.
“I think anytime you go a long spurt without scoring and finally see the ball go through the hole, it’s like, yeah, we can actually get back in our groove again,” said the 6-5 swing man. “I think seeing that go through, everyone remembered that we ran our offense in the first half, and we can do it again.”
Denmark will face Freedom for a third time this season in the championship on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Appleton North High School. A win would send them to the Kohl Center in Madison for the Division 3 state semifinals for only the second time in school history. Denmark won the Class B state title in 1985.
Big Plays From Everyone
Valders kept pushing the issue, now with 6-8 rim protector Pat Suemnick on the bench with four fouls. They went to the free-throw line five straight possessions, including on a questionable blocking foul on Brady Jens with Denmark up seven near the two-minute mark that had the normally unflappable Jens grinning in disbelief. Valders had outshot Denmark at that point 16-to-4 from the line in the second half, and 22-to-6 overall.
“I feel for Brady,” Stelmach said of the blocking foul. “He was working his tail off to get that position and should have been rewarded with a call. But the turnovers were the biggest thing. We were giving them easy opportunities and we were scrambling. I was happy with the way they gathered themselves.”
Those two free throws and two more charities following Denmark’s ninth turnover of the half suddenly had Denmark’s lead back to just three with 1:58 left. Short followed with a baseline drive, but Denmark still led only 50-47 a minute later and faced yet another blood-pressure-raising inbounds pass against the Valders ferocious man press.
That’s when Denmark decided to attack, and on two consecutive possessions passed over the press for easy breakaway buckets from Zach Gezella off deliveries from Jens and Brennen Miller. The lead was back to five with 25 seconds and when Valders turned it over with 13 seconds, Denmark fans, who had been holding their breath for the previous half hour, were able to exhale in celebration.
Short added a pair of free throws to set the final margin. He led all scorers with 22.
“After the two Wrightstown games (losses by a combined seven points) when we made a few mistakes at the end, Coach told us the crowds were going to be insane in the playoffs,” Short said. “So we needed to huddle up every chance we got and dial in our composure and give each other a confidence boost. I think we did that, and we told each other if we just play our game, we’re going to be all right.”
Suemnick, who fouled out on another tough call with 1:14 left, added 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. His defensive presence in the paint was critical in Denmark building a 31-20 halftime lead and his spinning bucket in the lane in the opening minutes of the second half gave the Vikings their biggest lead of the night at 13.
From Jens’s outlet to Gezella on the first of those two fast-break buckets in the final minute to Gezella’s steal and layup with 5:10 left in the game to Jack Satori’s four assists and two unlikely second-half three-pointers to sophomore Brennen Miller’s three with 2:10 left that extended Denmark’s lead back to seven, everyone contributed.
“Yeah, when Jack and Brennen give us something offensively, it’s extra,” Stelmach said. “Both had a couple of threes. That’s huge.
“We were getting pushed out (in the half court),” he added. “We knew we had to get past that pressure and keep our dribble and get around them. Once we got a chance to talk about it, we were fine. But you knew Valders was going to make a run. These (Valders) kids have been in this (sectional semi) six years in a row. That’s all they’ve ever known.”
Denmark needed every bit to offset the play of Matt Meyers, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half by driving to the basket and drawing fouls, and Trevor Leist, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half.
Denmark trailed only once at 3-0 and led for the final 24 minutes.
Denmark’s defense over the first three-fourths of the game couldn’t have been much better. They handled switches almost without a breakdown, forcing Valders into long possessions during which they rarely got a good look. Valders (13-11), which won its sixth consecutive regional title on Saturday, made just 4 of 17 from deep in the game and 14 of 39 overall. But they somehow managed to out-rebound the much taller Denmark and turned it over only seven times, while forcing 12.
Valders decided midway through the second half to lower their heads and drive to the basket and time and again they drew the whistle. They shot 26 charities in the game, converting 17, while Denmark was just 6 of 13 from the stripe.
“We noticed they were calling hand fouls, so it made it hard to slide in and cut that off because we knew were probably going to get a block or a reach-in called,” Short said. “We tried to chest up, but it was tough when Pat went out of the game.”
For the second straight game, Denmark missed only five shots in the second half and was 21 of 34 for the game, including 8 of 13 from deep. Notably, Denmark delivered assists on 15 of its 21 field goals. Satori led with four, while Miller added three and Short, Suemnick, Gezella and Jens added two apiece.
“I got faith in these kids,” Stelmach said. “We’re in the Elite Eight.”