ASHWAUBENON — This postseason the Kimberly girls basketball team had made a habit out of winning close games.
In its last three games entering Friday’s state semifinal the Papermakers outscored their opponents by a total of four points.
Friday, Kimberly was involved in another close game, so you would’ve though the Papermakers had Oak Creek just where they wanted it.
With 2.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Kimberly held a 38-36 lead, but Oak Creek’s Stephanie Kostowicz slipped free under the basket for the game-time tying basket.
The Knights used that momentum in overtime and ended Kimberly’s quest for a perfect season with a thrilling 46-40 win in a Division 1 state semifinal at the Resch Center.
“We kind of won a lot of close games lately on the year and we closed them out then but I think we kind of lost our mental toughness,” junior Frankie Wurtz said. “We made some weird mistakes we don’t usually make.”
“We let that one slip away in some respects,” coach Troy Cullen said. “It’s very tough because these kids wanted it. They believed in each other. I’m just proud of them because no matter what.
“I told them this and I’ll tell them when I get back in there (locker room). They’re winners in my mind no matter what.”
Kimberly (26-1) appeared to have the game in hand, leading 36-31 after a Marley Chevalier layup with 1:00 to play, but the Knights (25-2) who lost at Kimberly earlier in the season in double overtime (49-48), refused to wilt.
Jenna Santi drilled a 3-pointer with 46 seconds left in the quarter and after Kimberly split two free throws, the Knights made two free throws to cut the gap to 37-36 with 22 seconds to play.
After each team turned the ball over, Oak Creek was forced to foul and Kimberly again split two free throws with four seconds to play, setting up the final drama of the quarter. Oak Creek threw a long pass which deflected out of bounds under Oak Creek’s basket with 2.2 seconds left.
Santi then found Kostowicz under the basket alone for the tying points and afterwards Kostowicz admitted she ran the wrong play.
“She got open and those things happen,” Cullen said. “Obviously it cost us the game probably in some respects. I knew they were probably going to 32.”
In overtime, Oak Creek outscored the Papermakers, 8-2, ending Kimberly’s dream of perfection.
In some ways Kimberly had to feel fortunate to even be in the game. The Papermakers were 12 of 43 from the field (28 percent) and made just 14 of 26 free throws.
“I think in close games free throws make the difference,” Cullen said. “You see that all the time; credit them. I thought they did a good job defensively.
“They’re long, they make everything difficult for us.”
The reason Kimberly had a chance, though, was its toughness and will to win. You don’t win three straight postseason games by a total of four points without having heart.
Kimberly had it this season and it may be tough to accept a loss, but the journey to get to state was impressive.
“It’s been a heck of a ride, to get to the Final Four here,” Cullen said. “It’s very difficult to do. It’s tough. These kids wanted it, they believed in each other. I’m just proud of them. These kids don’t enjoy losing one bit.”
Notes: Jenna Smarzinski led Kimberly with 11 points, while Chevalier added 10 and Wurtz nine. … There were six lead changes, four ties and the largest lead of the game was 11 points by Oak Creek (15-4). … Steph Hetto led Kimberly with six rebounds.
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay