The Pewaukee boys basketball team “protected the palace” against one of its most stubborn invaders Jan. 6.

The Pirates made key plays down the stretch and, for the first time in the five years Milwaukee Pius XI has been part of the Woodland Conference, defeated the Popes at Pewaukee in a 64-59 victory. Pewaukee, now 11-1, entered the week ranked eighth in the state coaches poll, with Pius (8-2) slotted fourth.

“We always say ‘protect the palace,’” Pewaukee coach Mike Basile said. “Especially in a tough conference like we’re in, you have to win at home, because going on the road is brutal. So we thought it was very important to get a win at home. … You can’t take a night off in the Woodland Conference here.”

The Pirates, now 6-0 in league play, are alone in first place in the Woodland West, one game ahead of Wauwatosa West, and those two teams clash Jan. 13 for yet another high-level showdown. Pius was coming off a huge win over La Crosse Central, one of the favorites for the Division 2 crown, at the Rick Majerus Shootout between the holidays.

“It’s a heavyweight battle every night,” said Pewaukee senior Aidan Nordqust, who scored 12 of his team-high 16 points after halftime. “Our conference is one of the toughest in the state, so we have to come to play every time, and that's what we do.”

The score was knotted at 59 with 2:33 to go when Jack Gohlke worked free for a wide-open backdoor cut that gave his team the lead it would never surrender.

“What we have this year is high basketball IQ guys,” Basile said. “When there's an availability to cut backdoor, that's when we have guys taking advantage. It's not necessarily any offense or special play that we're doing, it's more on the kids who have a high basketball IQ that are able to make that adjustment when teams are overplaying or looking to double team. Our posts are probably our better passers on the team, so our big kids are able to throw over the top a couple times.”

That was demonstrated when 6-6 senior Wyatt Cook found Nordquist along the baseline with a backward pass that resulted in a go-ahead basket with 3:45 to go. Cook finished with 12 points, while Gohlke and Grant Basile each had 13. The 6-8 junior Basile added five blocks.

After Gohlke’s late basket, Pius was whistled for a charge on the other end, and Grant Basile’s bucket with 50 seconds to go spotted Pewaukee a 4-point cushion.

“We finish well, and we have guys passing, we're a tough team to beat inside because we have guys that are long who can make plays,” Cook said. "Passing starts a lot of our offense.

“The backdoor layup and then the charge. Two big plays. We took momentum and were able to control it from there. Consistency and executing really brought the game home.”

Pius also put four players in double figures, led by 16 from Victor Nwagbaraocha — a player particularly active on the offensive glass. but the Popes never carved out a lead greater than 4 points.

“We talked early all week long about how they're very aggressive on the offensive end,” Mike Basile said. “They were able to fly in and get some putbacks. It wasn’t a defensive thing; I thought we weren’t going after the ball off the rim. Way too many second opportunities. But down the stretch, we were able to hold them to one shot, and that's how we were able to hold on and win the game.”