WAUKESHA - The 2018-19 season was filled with all the wild, unpredictable twists and turns of an exhilarating rollercoaster ride and fittingly ended with a thrilling championship.
It was an appropriate way to describe the pressure-packed experience as the UWM-Waukesha men's basketball team fought through the challenges of a long, demanding year, rose to the occasion and eventually captured the prestigious Wisconsin Collegiate Conference state title.
UWM-Waukesha, which finished 18-10 overall, advanced to the WCC Final Four at JustAgame Fieldhouse in Wisconsin Dells for the third time in the last four years and claimed the prestigious WCC state championship - defeating UWGB-Sheboygan 63-51 in the title game Feb. 24.
It was the team's second state championship in the last three years and the seventh WCC state title in program history (with the last coming in 2016-17).
The remarkable postseason title run began as the No. 3-seeded Cougars - who finished 11-5 in the WCC East - earned a first-round home-court victory over UW-Fox Valley (96-51), then proceeded to go on the road to knock off three conference champions - including UWGB-Marinette (81-77) in the quarterfinals, UWSP-Marathon (62-54) in the semifinals and UWGB-Sheboygan (63-51) in the state finals.
"Our goal at the beginning of each season is always to win a state championship so it was special to continue the program's tradition," said UWM-Waukesha head coach Adam Ligocki, who has a 104-51 career record with two state titles through sixth years at the helm. "We played a lot of tough teams and a really challenging schedule but ultimately in the end it helped prepare us for the playoffs and biggest games of the year."
UWM-Waukesha finished the first semester with a 5-5 record, including promising victories over UW-Marathon (76-65), UW-Marinette (87-72), UW-Manitowoc (84-81), UW-Fox Valley (71-47) and UW-Fond du Lac (70-60).
It's five character-building first-semester losses came at the hands of high-powered College of Lake County (93-62), MATC (116-79), defending WCC state champion UW-Washington (74-70), Madison College (91-70) and WCC defending state-runner up UWGB-Sheboygan (79-66).
The Cougars won eight of their next 10 games to begin the second semester, highlighted by a momentum-building six-game winning streak - featuring victories over UW-Barron (83-44), UW-Rock (74-69), UW-Baraboo (77-70), Maranatha Baptist (79-55), UW-Marshfield (91-46), UW-Fox Valley (84-69), UW-Washington (81-53) and UW-Fond du Lac (93-78).
The key stretch included a critical 73-70 overtime early second-semester loss to eventual WCC West champion UWSP-Marathon on Jan. 5 to conclude an important two-day weekend slate of games at JustAgame Fieldhouse - giving the team a taste of playoff-atmosphere competition.
"Around Christmas time, we approached it with the mindset that we would start off strong in the second semester, put ourselves in position to make a run for the conference championship and potentially clinch a high seed heading into the playoffs," said Ligocki, noting the frequent adjustments made to the rotation because of ongoing injuries. "We accomplished most of that but unfortunately suffered a tough, regular-season loss on the road against Marinette."
UWM-Waukesha lost three of its final four games to finish the regular season - including stinging back-to-back road losses to WCC East co-champions UWGB-Marinette (83-75) and UWGB-Sheboygan (70-68) - setting the stage for its impressive, postseason title run.
"When that happened and we fell out of title contention, the experience made us stronger and acted as a good motivator," Ligocki said. "That's when the guys took a refuse-to-lose mentality, began to to take their game to a higher level and started to peak at just the right time. It took a little longer than expected but they became a hard team to beat once reaching their full potential.
"We simply played our best basketball over the course of the final four games of the season when it counted the most. I'm just very proud of the guys and their effort this season. They continued to grow as a team throughout the year, came together when it counted the most and accomplished something very special."
The Cougars were led by an experienced duo of all-conference players, including sophomore wing Jayden Hardy from Nicolet and junior post player Kurt Meyle from St. John's Northwestern Military Academy.
Hardy earned first-team all-conference honors by averaging a team-high 18.5 points per game, 9.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.7 steals. Meyle, who averaged 12.1 ppg. with 5.9 rpg., was named to the second team.
COUGAR FAST FACTS
What: The UWM-Waukesha men's basketball team
Head Coach: Adam Ligocki, sixth season
Assistant Coach: Bob Whiteford
Final Records: Finished 11-5 in Wisconsin Collegiate Conference East (third place) and 18-10 overall
Accomplishment: The Cougars advanced to the WCC Final Four at JustAgame Fieldhouse in Wisconsin Dells for the third time in the last four years and captured the prestigious WCC state championship - defeating UWGB-Sheboygan 63-51 in the title game Feb. 24.
Team Members: Junior post player Kurt Meyle from St. John's Northwestern Military Academy, sophomore wing Jayden Hardy from Nicolet, sophomore wing Ben Schaefer from Muskego, sophomore guard Jackson Kunnert from Pewaukee, sophomore wing Avery Corey from Waterford, freshman wing Jeremy Ninham from Nicolet, freshman guard Jake Antczak from Mukwonago, freshman wing Tyler Torosian from New Berlin West, freshman guard Jalen Black from Dominican, freshman wing Kris Zeise from Menomonee Falls, freshman wing Michael Rabbitt from Pine Island, Minn., freshman wing Brad Scheff from New Berlin West, freshman wing Makal Evans from Milwaukee Messmer and freshman post player Wendell Gallimore from West Allis Hale