WISCONSIN DELLS - With a trip to the state finals on the line, Jayden Hardy stepped up and took control of the situation.
Hardy, a 6-foot-4 sophomore wing from Nicolet, emphasized that point by scoring seven consecutive points over the course of a pivotal two-minute stretch late in the second half as the UWM-Waukesha men's basketball team defeated UWSP-Marathon 62-54 in a Wisconsin Collegiate Conference state semifinal at JustAgame Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.
It was the fourth consecutive victory for UWM-Waukesha, which improved to 17-10 overall with the emotional come-from-behind victory.
The performance took on added significance as it avenged a stinging 73-70 overtime loss to the WCC West champion Huskies from Jan. 5, advancing the Cougars to the state championship game for the second time in the last three years.
UWM-Waukesha trailed 53-51 with 4:12 remaining but responded with a composed 11-1 run down the stretch.
Hardy powered the momentum-shifting run with a critical, game-tying mid-range jumper followed by an aggressive baseline drive and reverse layup to regain a 55-53 lead with 3:21 left.
It was the turning point in the contest as UWSP-Marathon managed to convert just one free throw during the final four minutes - missing on three 3-point attempts and a layup in the process.
"It's been awhile since I played in a championship game so this is an amazing feeling," said a smiling Hardy, who registered a double-double by contributing 18 points with two baskets from 3-point range, 4 of 6 free throws, a team-high 16 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.
"When the game was close in the second half, in my mind I just told myself that it was time to step up the intensity and do everything possible to help the team.
"From beginning to end, we were motivated and didn't want this to be our last game. It was just a great feeling to hear the final buzzer sound and realize that we are going to the finals."
UWM-Waukesha showcased its depth, balance and athleticism with seven players reaching the scoring column, including three in double figures.
Freshman wing Jeremy Ninham from Nicolet followed with 13 points with one 3-pointer, 8 of 10 free throws, four rebounds, four steals and two assists for the Cougars, who made eight 3-pointers, 14 of 20 free throws and shot 37.7 percent from field-goal range.
Freshman guard Jake Antczak from Mukwonago chipped in 11 points with three 3-pointers, 2 of 3 free throws and four rebounds for UWM-Waukesha, which outrebounded the Huskies 44-30 - maintaining a 35-23 advantage on the defensive glass. Junior post player Kurt Meyle from St. John's Northwestern Military Academy chipped in nine points, five rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
Sophomore forward Ben Schaefer from Muskego added six points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal for the Cougars, who generated 13 assists.
Schaefer provided a huge spark midway through the first half to help power a key, confidence-building 22-10 run over the course of the final 10 minutes as UWM-Waukesha built a 12-point lead at the intermission.
With the Cougars clinging to an early one-point lead midway through the opening half, Schaefer demonstrated his heart, athleticism and hustle by diving deep out of bounds to save the ball and then sprinting the length of the court to finish on a layup to extend the lead to 12-9 with 9:23 remaining.
UWM-Waukesha sixth-year head coach Adam Ligocki was proud of how his team demonstrated its resilience and handled the pressure of playing a fierce opponent in the state semifinals.
"I'm really proud of how the guys stepped up to the challenge, responded to the pressure and made plays down the stretch," Ligocki said. "Over the course of the final six minutes, it seemed liked every possession was huge with the way it was playing out. Marathon deserves a ton of credit in the way they refused to roll over once we built a lead at the end of the first half. Early on in the second half, they shot the ball well, went on a run and gave us all that we could handle. That said, our second-year players just set the tone with their leadership and led us to one of the biggest victories of the season.
"Above all else, our goal from the beginning has been to win a state championship and this victory put us back in the title game. We're excited about the opportunity to go up against Sheboygan one more time so now we just have to play our best and see what happens."
Sophomore guard Fred Nunez scored a game-high 19 points with two 3-pointers, 5 of 6 free throws and four rebounds for UWSP-Marathon, which ended the season 12-8 overall. Sophomore guard Tarrin St. Germaine and sophomore forward Tavian RisingSun Doud each had eight points for the Huskies, who made five 3-pointers, 13 of 20 free throws and shot 32.1 percent from the field.
COUGAR FAST FACTS
What: The UWM-Waukesha men's basketball team defeated UWSP-Marathon 62-54 in a Wisconsin Collegiate Conference state semifinal game at JustAgame Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.
Final Record: 17-10 overall
Scoring Leaders: Jayden Hardy (18 points), Jeremy Ninham (13 points), Jake Antczak (11 points), Kurt Meyle (9 points), Ben Schaefer (6 points), Jackson Kunnert (3 points), Tyler Torosian (2 points)
Rebound Leaders: Hardy (16), Schaefer (6), Meyle (5), Ninham (4), Antczak (4), Kunnert (3), Torosian (3)
Notable: The Cougars trailed 53-51 with 4:12 remaining but responded with a composed 11-1 run down the stretch to seal a hard-fought victory.