Between hugs and wiping tears from their eyes, it was probably hard for Amherst seniors Marisa Loken and Jessica Peterson to find a lot to celebrate Wednesday night.
Their season, and subsequently their high school basketball careers had just ended in heartbreaking fashion in overtime in a WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal contest.
Once they emptied out of the Menasha High School gym and hopped on the bus for an agonizingly long ride home following a 60-55 loss to Oconto, Peterson and Loken will have a chance to reflect on a number of positive things they were a part of over the course of the season.
Not only did the veteran tandem lead the Falcons back to sectional play for the first time since 2009, but Loken and Peterson can cherish playing a part in capturing a Central Wisconsin Conference 8 championship.
“I’m really proud of the two seniors and how they were leaders and the way they stepped up for this group. To be 20-5 and play in a sectional is a great accomplishment,” Amherst coach Jay Pitt said. “Now our underclassmen have to feed off that. To have a chance to get to play in this environment, in a big gym with a big crowd, will make them more hungry.”
The Blue Devils (21-5) advanced to the sectional final at 7 p.m. Saturday against the winner of a semifinal between Algoma and Oshkosh Lourdes Academy scheduled for tonight.
Amherst had a chance to complete a remarkable second-half comeback in the closing seconds with the score tied at 48-48 and possession of the ball.
Pitt diagrammed a play for what he was hoping to be the game-winning shot, but it never materialized and Brooke Groholski’s shot from the free throw line was blocked as time expired.
“At the end of regulation, I was happy we got a shot off. We had to scramble one-on-one a little bit and that’s the shot we ended up with,” Pitt said.
Oconto seized control early in the overtime when Andrea Cisar drained a 3-pointer just 20 seconds into the extra period.
The Falcons quickly found themselves in a 53-48 hole but fought back to tie the game at 55-55 with 1 minute, 20 seconds showing on the clock, before Oconto’s Jaelyn Jicha, who finished with 18 points, scored inside with a minute to go to give the Blue Devils the lead for good.
Even when his team enjoyed a double-digit lead at haftime, Oconto coach Russ Young never felt comfortable.
“You don’t have a big enough cushion because they can all shoot the ball well,” Young said. “They left Cisar open (to start the overtime) and I don’t blame them because she hadn’t done anything. That was a big shot though.”
Oconto may already have been making travel plans to Waupaca at halftime Wednesday after building as much as a 16-point lead in the first half and taking a 30-16 lead into the break.
Looking nothing like the squad that struggled to convert from close range or find a way to slow down Division 1 prospect Laken James, who scored 17 of her game-high 22 points in the opening 16 minutes, Amherst clawed its way back into the game.
Sophomore Kelsey Holderman, who finished with 11 points, came of the bench to score six quick points in a 7-0 run to open the third quarter and get the Falcons right back in the game.
In the end, they just couldn’t put the finishing touches on an improbable comeback. Hannah Grawey paced Amherst with 13 points, including three 3-pointers, while Jaimee Pitt added 10.
“It’s kind of weird to get to a sectional and play a team where all the girls know each other through playing AAU,” coach Pitt said. “Unfortunately, someone is going to walk out of here disappointed.”
OCONTO (60): Andrea Cisar 5, Laken James 22, Macey Ellman 6, Carli Meyer 5, Jaelyn Jicha 18, Emily Shallow 4.
AMHERST (55): Jaimee Pitt 10, Brooke Groholski 6, Marisa Loken 7, Hannah Grawey 13, Lindsay Rutz 7, Kelsey Holderman 11, Ashley Pionkowski 1.
3-pointers: Oconto 2 (Cisar, Meyer), Amherst 5 (Grawey 3, Holderman 2).
Records: Amherst 20-5; Oconto 21-4.