If you really want to understand what it’s like to be the hunted, the team everyone desperately wants to take down, the team in which expectations are so high in your own city it can be suffocating, listen how Little Chute coach Mickey Martin described his Mustangs’ journey to the state tournament this season.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Martin said after his top-ranked Mustangs toppled Brillion 59-37 in a WIAA Division 3 sectional final Saturday before an overflow crowd at Ashwaubenon High School, securing the state berth everyone expected to happen back when practice opened in November.
“It’s great you’re winning and that helps in the long run, but as soon as you win a game you’re looking forward to the next game already and you really don’t get to enjoy that one,” said Martin. “Until you’ve been in this situation, it’s really hard to describe, but it’s just always there, just always hanging, and it’s something you’ve got to deal with. Kind of comes with the territory.
“I’m just glad for my kids, how they’ve prepared this year all year. You can tell what they can do inside the lines but I think more importantly is how they handled everything outside the lines and how they handled all the attention this year and all the pressure that comes with that and having the X on your back. I just think our guys did a really good job both ways and I’m just really proud of them.”
Little Chute and its senior-laden lineup was at the top of its game against a Brillion team that, despite losing seven of its top eight players off last year’s Division 3 state championship team, had played splendidly all season.
But on Saturday, the Lions ran into a team that was longer, more athletic and, perhaps above all, extremely determined.
“We had to try and not let the game become athletic,” said Lions coach Pete Kittel, “and the game became athletic. And I thought that was the difference.
“I always say, give me seniors and it makes a big difference and I thought they played like seniors today. … They’re a great team.”
The Mustangs got the fast start they wanted, jumping to a 12-2 lead. Brillion rallied early in the second quarter to tie the game at 14-14 on Eric Kittel’s three-pointer, but that’s when Little Chute’s 6-foot-8 Kenneth Lowe imposed his will on this game.
He first drove down the middle of the lane to score, was fouled and converted the three-point play. Less than a minute later, he drove the baseline and put down a thunderous slam to extend the leave to five, and added one more driving basket to help the Mustangs take a 27-19 halftime lead.
“It got me real comfortable,” Lowe, who finished with 13 points that included three rim-rattling slam dunks, said of his first dunk that sent the Little Chute fans into a frenzy. “Then I just let the game come to me and my teammates got me the ball.”
After a tough night in the sectional semifinal win over Xavier on Thursday, Lowe’s resurgence was a welcome sight for the Mustangs and their faithful.
“That’s the Kenneth Lowe everybody knows and everybody loves,” said teammate and fellow UW-Green Bay recruit Turner Botz. “We talked before the game and said if we’re going to be successful, both he and I are going to have to be firing on all cylinders tonight and he really stepped up his game.
“He was amazing, everything he did. He was rebounding, scoring, he was very active and he did really good today.”
It was another Lowe baseline drive that pushed the Mustangs’ lead to 34-23 with 4:26 left in the third quarter, and the lead would never sink below double digits the rest of the game.
“We talked before the game about not missing any of those zero footers and he made sure he got those down,” Martin said of Lowe. “As the game went on, (the dunks) really energized our crowd.”
Up next for Little Chute (25-1) will be a 9 a.m. Division 3 semifinal Friday at the Kohl Center in Madison against La Crosse Aquinas (22-4), led by University of Wisconsin recruit Bronson Koening.
“It’s going to be a great matchup between us and Aquinas,” said Martin, who has seen the Blugolds in action this season. “I’m telling you, people are going to be in for a show.”
For Brillion, returning to the sectional final was a tribute to its program, which put on an unexpectedly entertaining show all season long.
“These kids, nobody expected them to be in this game for sure,” said Pete Kittel. “Nobody expected a conference championship. I’m extremely proud of what they did.”
Several interviews after the final horn, Martin was still gripping the game ball in his right arm. He said returning to this game and winning it was foremost on his mind for the past year after losing to Brillion in last year’s sectional final.
But don’t confuse that with a sense of satisfaction by the Mustangs just getting to Madison.
“A little bit,” Botz, who finished with 16 points, said of a burden being lifted, “but I don’t know if I’ll feel that way until we bring back the gold ball.
“Just getting there isn’t everything I want. I want to actually win the thing.”
Brillion: Kittel 18, Koerth 3, Orth 6, Lemke 6, Jensen 3, Cohen 1. Totals: 13 6-10 37. Three-pointers: Kittel 3, Koerth, Lemke. Fouls: 14.
Little Chute: Ciske 10, DeValk 7, Albers 3, Botz 16, Hawley 5, Job 3, Peerenboom 2, Lowe 13. Totals: 21 11-18 59. Three-pointers: Botz 3, Ciske 2, Albers. Fouls: 11.
–Mike Woods: 920-993-1000, ext. 232, or email@example.com; On Twitter @PCMikeW