For the more than three months, the Whitnall boys basketball team has been nearly perfect night in and night out.
When the Falcons were less than perfect for the first half of a WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal at , the wound up paying dearly.
The Falcons’ remarkable season came to a sudden stop as the second-seeded Pius Popes took an early lead and held on for a 66-62 victory Thursday. Whitnall finished 22-3, with its losses by a combined seven points.
“You play 25 games and you hope when you get to this stage you don’t have a bad one,” Whitnall coach Kent Kroupa said. “Well, tonight we did not play a good basketball game.
“We didn’t achieve our goal of going to Madison, but I couldn’t be more proud of the team to win 22 games. The seven seniors have been outstanding. The overall effort all year long has been exceptional. You never like to lose. You get this far (and) you want to get the gold ball and go home with it. There will be a little pain for a while and then life goes on.”
A majority of that pain was induced by Pius’ standout senior duo of Carrington Love and Larry Fitzgerald, who combined for 47 points.
Love scored a game-high 26, including 13 straight for the Popes from the end of the second quarter into the third as Pius took a modest, but confident lead.
“(The) first half when we didn’t play defense, we didn’t switch, we didn’t communicate well enough on the defensive end,” Kroupa said. “We couldn’t stop Love’s penetration and what he was doing with the basketball.”
The Falcons, who led only once at 25-24 with 1:23 left in the first half, trailed 42-30 with 2:40 to go in the third quarter. But Whitnall they back. Whitnall closed the third with an 8-0 run that included a 3-pointer and three free throws by Luke Mentkowski, who scored a team-high 22 points.
With 5:36 left in the fourth quarter, Ian Ray drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing that pulled the Falcons within one at 48-47, but Fitzgerald immediately answered with a three-point play and another bucket for five of his 21 points, sparking an 11-2 Pius run.
“We really felt we could run our sets. At times we ran them to perfection,” Pius coach Joel Claassen said. “We were getting so many looks on the block. We realized Larry Fitzgerald had what we thought was an advantage on a set. He’s so strong and he finished and got the and-one. That was a big set.”
Love added seven straight down the stretch to help the Popes pull away for good. Whitnall made three late 3-pointers to make it close but the Falcons trailed by as many as nine points with 1:13 remaining.
“We needed to play better defense,” Kroupa said. “We just didn’t play good enough defense to beat a team the caliber of Pius.
“We never seemed to get into a flow. We made it close and made some 3s but that was desperation and hoping we could get the score down. We couldn’t get into the offensive flow we needed.”