Even at 6-foot-7, Josh Knoepke knows where his basketball future lies after this season.
“Streetball, Gus Macker, things like that,” the Fox Valley Lutheran senior said after his 16 points led the Foxes to a 51-39 win over Freedom in a WIAA Division 3 regional semifinal on Friday at FVL.
The Foxes (14-10) now travel to top-seeded Little Chute in tonight’s regional final in a battle of Eastern Valley Conference rivals. The Mustangs (22-1) dispatched Tomahawk 55-25 in Friday’s other regional semifinal.
While Knoepke is headed to Michigan Tech next fall to play football, on Friday his mind was giving himself at least one more day of hoops. His improvement on the court this season allowed the Foxes to finish a surprising second in the Eastern Valley and his height advantage helped FVL control the lane against the Irish.
“Josh is a big part of our game,” FVL coach Matt Koepsell said. “He does a lot of nice things for us. He’s really coming into his own. He moves well and the guys are good at using him.”
Knoepke had balanced scoring with four points in each quarter during the defensive-minded game. In addition, he had five blocks that kept Freedom from consistently driving to the basket, a problem made worse for the Irish with the absence of starting point guard Jake Green, who sprained an ankle in practice on Thursday.
“It hurt us in that lately he’s been doing a great job of getting in the lane and penetrating. Tonight we just couldn’t get into the lane,” Freedom coach John Van Rossum said of Green.
“We simply didn’t make shots when we had the opportunities. That was the difference.”
The Irish shot 33 percent (13-of-39) but were held for long stretches without shot attempts by FVL’s defense. The Foxes, meanwhile, shot 14-of-30 (47 percent) including eight-of-12 in the second half. They also hit 14 of 15 free throw attempts in the final two quarters and finished 20-of-21 at the line in a game where the teams combined to make 29 of 31 free throw tries.
Knoepke’s steal and dunk midway through the second quarter tied the game at 15-15 and FVL’s Brock Fuhrman then hit two free throws to give the Foxes the lead for good. Freedom got to within 22-19 just after halftime but could not get closer than nine points in the final quarter as FVL went 10-of-10 at the line. That included six in a row by Corey Paulos, who chipped in 11 points for the Foxes.
“We’re a second-half team,” Knoepke said. “If we were down by six I would still say, ‘We’ve got a win.’ Being up by four at the half, that was big for us.”
The Foxes’ big man won’t tower over opponents in today’s regional final. He’ll see literally on an eye-to-eye level against Little Chute’s Turner Botz and Kenneth Lowe. Knoepke’s solution?
“Come out even harder,” he said.
FVL will be an underdog to the Mustangs in the regional final, but has come closer to them than any other conference team this season, losing 41-36 on Feb. 5.
“There’s a reason they’re the top-ranked team in our division. They’re talented and well-coached,” Koepsell said. “We’ve competed with them consistently over the last few years, and we’re hoping we can do that again.”
Freedom: Jadin 2, B. Schommer 2, Waters 15, C. Hofacker 5, Gonnering 5, Connelly 7, Hicks-Klund 3. Totals 13 9-10 39. Fouls: 14.
FVL: Malkowski 3, Schwebs 6, Ashman 9, Fuhrman 6, Paulos 11, Knoepke 16. Totals 14 20-21 51. Fouls: 10.
3-Point Goals: Freedom 4 (Waters 2, C. Hofacker, Connelly), FVL 3 (Malkowski, Ashman, Paulos).