There’s a reason coaches have their players practice their free throws and Tuesday night was a perfect example why for the Wittenberg-Birnamwood girls basketball team.
On a night when the Chargers struggled from the outside and with turnovers, free throws were the biggest reason they kept their perfect record intact, holding off a late rally by Wausau West for a 55-51 nonconference victory at the Witt-Birn gym.
The win improved Witt-Birn’s record to 6-0 while the Warriors suffered their third straight loss to fall to 5-3 overall.
“That this year has been a welcome addition to our team,” Witt-Birn coach Mike Balliett said of his team’s improved free-throw shooting. “Last year, it cost us two or three games. That’s why we put an emphasis on it all summer and right now during the season.”
The emphasis paid off against West as the Chargers hit 15 of 18 foul shots for the game, including 12 of 14 in the fourth quarter when the Warriors managed to cut Witt-Birn’s double-digit lead down to three points twice in the final minute.
“That’s the sign of a very good, battle-tested team,” West coach Pat Galligan said. “They win the close games when they have them. They are ready for this environment when they have a tough game.”
The Chargers broke open a close game midway through the first quarter when they went on a 23-8 run to take a 31-16 lead. West responded with an 11-0 run of its own in just over a two-minute stretch of the second and third quarters pull within four.
Witt-Birn then gradually built its lead back up to 12 early in the fourth quarter before the Warriors staged one last rally sparked offensively by 16 points down the stretch from Caity Coleman, Kierra Kohlbeck and Anna Brown.
“Obviously, we have to do a better job down the stretch, but for us to go 0-for-13 from 3-point range and our guards have five and seven turnovers and win, we’ll take it,” Balliett said. “I give credit to Pat and his crew. We knew they would not go away very easily.”
Monica Verkuilen and Savanah Vera led Witt-Birn with 14 points apiece. Megan School added nine points, including 5 of 6 foul shots, while Taylor Bushman finished with eight.
The Warriors also had a balanced scoring attack as Brown finished with 14 points, Jasmin Samz 11, Kohlbeck 10 and Katy Cihlar nine.
“We had balanced scoring but at times, we had difficulty moving the ball around and that’s a credit to their defense,” Galligan said.
“It was a tough, physical game throughout, which is reflected in the score being so close.”
After a 5-0 start, the Warriors will now try to rebound from three tough losses, due in part to scheduling strong nonconference opponents such as DeForest and Witt-Birn.
“When you play a very challenging schedule, that means you may lose some games,” Galligan said. “Tonight, we came up a couple of points short, but I think it will make us better as the season goes on.”
WAUSAU WEST (51): Kierra Kohlbeck 10, Anna Brown 14, Jasmin Samz 11, Katy Cihlar 9, Caity Coleman 7. FG: 19-49, 39%. FT: 10-13, 77%.
WITTENBERG-BIRNAMWOOD (55): Taylor Bushman 8, Makayla Hartman 2, Megan School 9, Monica Verkuilen 14, Erika Alwes 2, Micah Nier 6, Savanah Vera 14. FG: 20-48, 42%. FT: 15-18, 83%.
3-point field goals: Wausau West 3 (Samz, Kohlbeck, Coleman); Wittenberg-Birnamwood 0.
Records: Wausau West 5-3; Wittenberg-Birnamwood 6-0.