Maybe you can call this a coming-of-age story.
Flashy sophomore guard Tyler Herro may be the heart of the young and talented Whitnall boys basketball team, but junior forward Kevion Taylor is its soul.
With his team on the ropes in a fast-paced and entertaining WIAA Division 2 sectional final with Whitefish Bay at a packed Brown Deer Novak Family field house on March 12, Taylor was seemingly everywhere, hitting putbacks, draining cold-blooded jumpers and calmly sinking key free throws.
He scored 12 of his game-high 28 points in the final three minutes, as the Falcons broke open a close game and earned their first state tournament berth since 2004 with a 79-70 victory.
'Kevion just would not be denied,' said Falcon coach Steve Kujawa. 'He got every piece of loose change out there. He's just been doing it the right way all season. Just such an underrated player. He's a three-year starter, and he just put us on his shoulders today.'
For Taylor, it was just another day's work.
'It had gotten a little too close to be comfortable,' he said, 'We had a talk at halftime. We were just going to bring it. We were not going to lose this game. And we made it a reality. We're going to state.'
He looked around at all the people who had come onto the court to congratulate him and his teammates.
'This is so much fun to be around. This team is a family,' he said with a smile.
Players shook hands
To further emphasize that point, Kujawa had his players shake as many hands with fans as could be reasonably expected. Both Whitnall and Bay brought huge support with them, and the Falcon backers happily wanted to share their joy with the players.
Kujawa also did his part by taking the sectional championship plaque to the security ropes in front of the Whitnall stands to soak in in the joyous roars.
The victory improved the Falcons to 20-6 on the season and advanced them to a WIAA state semifinal at 1:35 p.m. Friday, March 18, against Waunakee (24-2) at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Kujawa said he had an inkling of something special possibly happening during the practices before the first regional victory over Bay View.
'That was the 'ah-ha' moment for this group,' he said. 'We challenged them. We said, 'This is the way we have to play.' We believed that our best basketball was still ahead of us. Every single challenge we put in front of them, they met.'
For Herro, the sophomore phenom who brought both University of Wisconsin coach Greg Gard and Marquette University mentor Steve Wojciechowski to the contest, it's another step in an already sensational career that has him only 10 points short of 1,000 already.
'This means everything to me, to the team and the community,' he said. 'We've been working for this since we were little kids. Now we're here, and it's great for everyone.'
Dukes finish 16-9
Except the Blue Dukes, who finished a sensational tournament run with a final mark of 16-9.
'We just couldn't get there at the end,' said first-year Bay coach Chris Millner, whose team was looking for its first state berth since 2011. 'We just couldn't get the stops we had to. We fought for the lead, but we came up a little short, especially on the offensive boards. And they did a great job hitting their free throws.'
Taylor handled the lion's share of the work on the boards down the stretch and got plenty of help defensively and at the foul line from his teammates.
The Blue Dukes took a 34-30 lead in the first half only to have that dissipate under a 2-for-13 shooting start to the second half. Bay senior forward Zach Casey scored on a fast break to give the Blue Dukes a 57-56 lead with 4:37 left.
Bay forced a turnover and had a chance to expand the lead, but then Herro deftly deflected a pass and cruised in for a layup at the 4:04 mark and a 58-57 advantage.
The Falcons would never trail again.
After a Bay turnover, Taylor knocked down one putback and then another a few seconds later.
Taylor kept going as he was fouled at the 2:38 mark and knocked down two free throws to make it 64-60.
Casey came up big again for the Blue Dukes with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 64-63 with 2:21 to go, but then the Falcons went on a decisive 8-0 run to clinch the game.
Taylor had a basket and three free throws in the run as Whitnall stretched the advantage to 72-63 with 1:08 left.
Herro praises Taylor
'Kevion just came up big-time,' Herro said. 'He comes to work every day. He just works so hard. A big shout out to him. He's a big reason we're going to Madison.'
Whitnall would then hit 12 of 14 free throws in the final 2:38 to keep the Blue Dukes at arm's-length.
Kujawa knows his team runs on the energy provided by Herro, who finished with 14 points, and Taylor, but he said the senior 'glue' players were sensational this day.
'I thought we had great defensive intensity down the stretch,' he said, 'and Daren (Thomas) had a big putback, and Austin (Brault) came up big, too. These kids just did not want to lose.'
Brault had 16 points and set an early tone with some key buckets in the first few minutes. Fellow seniors Andrew Mixon and Thomas had 6 points each. Sophomore forward Daniel Alexopoulos, another part of the youth movement, added 9 points.
The Blue Dukes were led by guard Elijah Moore with 23 points, while Casey had 15, David Thompson 12 and Macklin Kortebein 11.
Kujawa is happy this team may have started peaking a little before everyone expected them to.
'This marks 30 years since our first state tournament berth,' Kujawa said. 'We went to state in 1986, in 1988 (winning a title) and 2004. Even number years must be very good for us.'
His players certainly believe so.
'This is an amazing experience,' Mixon said. 'We've been working for this since the beginning of the season. All the time practicing. All the time spent shooting in the yard. It's been a dream since I was young. I'm still letting it soak in.'
WHAT: The WIAA Division 2 State Tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison
FRIDAY, MARCH 18: Waunakee (24-2) vs. Whitnall (20-6) at 1:35 p.m. and La Crosse Central (22-4) vs. Kaukauna (24-2) at 3:15 p.m.
SATURDAY, MARCH 19: Championship game at 6:35 p.m.
WHITNALL:The Falcons placed second in the Woodland Conference East Division at 11-5 and have won eight of nine games. They are paced by 6-foot-4-inch sophomore guard Tyler Herro at 24.2 points and 3.9 assists per game, both leading the team. Kevion Taylor, a 6-5 junior forward, is at 19 points and 7.2 rebounds per outing and 6-3 sophomore forward Dan Alexopoulos at 8.7 points per game. Austin Brault, a 6-0 senior guard, adds 3.6 assists per game.
COACH STEVE KUJAWA: 'We have bent but not broken on defense and have been able to get key stops to stem the tide on (opponents') scoring runs.'
WAUNAKEE: The Warriors won the Badger North Conference at 11-1 and come into the tournament with a 19-game winning streak. They are led by 6-3 sophomore guard Mitch Listau at 17.5 points per game, 6-2 sophomore guard Mason Steffen at 11.5 points per outing and 6-3 senior forward Riley Freeman at 11.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
COACH DANA MACKENZIE: 'These kids believed they could be great and their confidence grew throughout the season. We are a physical team with a number of all-conference football players.'
KAUKAUNA: The Galloping Ghosts claimed the Fox Valley Association crown at 16-2 and are 16-1 down the stretch. Their leader is 5-11 sophomore point guard Jordan McCabe at 24.8 points and 6.1 assists per game, and he earned conference player of the year honors. Adam Smith, a 6-2 junior guard, is at 17.5 points per game; 6-4 senior forward Marcus Moreau at 14 points and 11.8 rebounds per outing; and 6-2 senior forward Dalton Erdman at 10.4 points per game. Kaukauna beat La Crosse Central, its first state opponent, by an 80-65 margin this season.
COACH MIKE SCHALOW: 'We restructed our defense midway through the season, and we were able to limit (high-scoring Cedarburg guard) John Diener to 3 points (in sectional play). On offense, we spread the floor and attack the gaps.'
LA CROSSE CENTRAL: The Red Raiders won the Mississippi Valley Conference at 11-1 and have won nine straight. Kobe King, a 6-4 junior guard/forward, collects 26 points and 10 rebounds per game, and 6-0 junior guard Bailey Kale adds 16.6 points per outing.