The 2017 WIAA girls basketball state championships wrapped up last weekend, and for the ninth straight year, I was fortunate enough to sit courtside for all of the action. The state basketball tournaments, both boys and girls, are among my favorite events on the calendar each year, and we were treated to some outstanding action throughout the weekend.
Below are a few lasting impressions from this year’s girls hoops tournament.
- For the first time since 1992, there were no defending state champions at the WIAA girls basketball tournament, with some “new blood” leading the way this season. In fact, all five of the state champions were first-time winners of WIAA titles.
- No doubt, the most exciting game of the tournament was the Division 4 championship between Howards Grove and Aquinas. The Blugolds of Aquinas controlled the game most of the way, leading for 33 minutes, including a 9-point advantage on three different occasions in the second half. The scrappy Tigers from Howards Grove wouldn’t go away, however, eventually taking their first lead of the game with 49 seconds remaining on an old-fashioned 3-point play from senior Olivia Stauss. She would add a pair of free throws with 10 seconds remaining to give Howards Grove a 3-point advantage, setting the stage for a frantic final possession for Aquinas. The Blugolds fumbled the in-bounds pass and nearly turned the ball over near mid-court, but found a way to get the ball to Kyah Steiner as the seconds ticked down. She caught the pass inside the 3-point line on the right wing and stepped back to try for a game-tying 3-pointer. The ball swished through a fraction of a second before the horn sounded, and the Aquinas bench and crowd were delirious. However, the officials indicated she had a foot on the line for a 2-point attempt, leaving the Tigers one point ahead. For the first time I can recall, the officials utilized video replay, available only at the state tournament, to confirm the call and allow Howards Grove to claim the title.
- Don’t be surprised to see Aquinas back at state in the coming years, however, as the Blugolds’ top four scorers are non-seniors, including freshman phenom Lexi Donarski, part of the WisSports.net All-Tournament Team and a player who has already committed to Iowa State. In fact, only four of the 10 selections to the All-Tournament Team were seniors, as the state of girls basketball continues to be very strong. Donarski is part of a very talented group of young stars who shined at the State Tournament, and Monroe sophomore Sydney Hilliard was also impressive, scoring 16 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, and adding three steals in the Cheesemakers’ semifinal loss to Beaver Dam. She holds a scholarship offer from Wisconsin, as does fellow sophomore Sydnee Roby of Milwaukee King, who had 17 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 blocks in a loss to Appleton North. Of course, the biggest individual story from the state tournament was Milwaukee Academy of Science sophomore Shemera Williams.
- Williams was well-known to state hoops fans prior to the tournament, averaging a state-best 31.6 points per game this season, including a 51-point eruption in a 76-74 sectional final win over Fall River to send the Novas to state. Once in Green Bay, she broke nine Division 5 state tournament records, including most points in game with 40 and points in a tournament with 73. She knocked down 25-foot three-pointers, slashed into the lane for runners and scored off turnovers and in transition while displaying dazzling ball-handling skills in front of numerous college coaches. Her performance earned her an offer from Minnesota to go with previous offers from Wisconsin, Marquette, Kansas State and Valparaiso. Speaking of college coaches, representatives from Division 1 schools Wisconsin, Marquette, Minnesota, Northwestern, Nebraska, Cleveland State, IUPUI, Milwaukee, and Green Bay were spotted around the Resch Center, along with numerous Division 2 and 3 coaches.
- One of the common themes throughout the tournament was teams making surges in the second half to pull away for victories. Division 3 champion Madison Edgewood was up by just 8 points at halftime of the title game versus Martin Luther before cruising home to a 51-30 victory. The biggest comeback was in the Division 5 championship contest, as Loyal trailed Milwaukee Academy of Science by 2 at the break and as many as 13 in the second half before closing the game on a 35-9 run to claim the title. As previously mentioned, Howards Grove had to rally to win the D4 title, but also found itself behind late in the semifinal contest against Durand before scoring 8 points in the final 39 seconds to win, 44-37. In Division 1, Appleton North led by a total of just 5 points at halftime in games against Milwaukee King and De Pere, but the final margins of victory in the two games combined to 38 points. Beaver Dam held an 8-point lead at the break against Cudahy in the title game but went on to win by 19 points.
- Speaking of Appleton North and Beaver Dam, many onlookers commented how impressive those two were, not only in capping undefeated seasons with state titles, but in how they played. Both squads featured numerous strong, athletic players that could contribute but also displayed excellent all-around ball skills. It’s no wonder they were both among the highest-scoring teams in the state this year, each averaging more than 70 points per game. Not all teams have the kind of athletes these two do, but it will be interesting to see if concepts are borrowed in other areas of the state. Up-tempo, an emphasis on ball skills throughout the program, high-intensity and focus extending not only to the game, but warm-ups and practices as well. They are deep, talented and the envy of many programs around the state.
- Attendance at the girls state tournament can often be dependent on the type and location of teams that make it, and this year was a very good combination of both. As a result, preliminary overall attendance was 39,865, which is the largest since the first year the tournament was in Green Bay back in 2013. That’s nearly 5,500 more than last year, and the official number could end up over 40,000 once suites sales are added in. The girls tournament has eclipsed that mark since 2006. Big crowds from local teams De Pere, Appleton North, and Hortonville certainly helped, with Beaver Dam, Loyal, Howards Grove, and others bringing solid contingents as well. The Saturday evening D1/D2 championship session drew 7,127, the highest since 2005.
- As always, it was an outstanding event, and a big congratulations goes to Deb Hauser and the rest of the hard-working WIAA staff, as well as the gracious hosts at the Resch Center, PMI, and greater Green Bay area. Can’t wait to do it all over again next year!