McKenzie Taggatz and Tayor Smola couldn’t believe there were pesky gnats darting around them in the middle of winter.
Whether it was Taggatz trying to run the Stevens Point Area Senior High offense, or Smola collecting a pass on the low block attempting to score, everywhere they turned there was a swarm of ultra-quick Neenah players bothering, annoying and otherwise pestering them all night.
Struggling to cope with the Rockets’ pressuring defense throughout their WIAA Division 1 regional semifinal matchup, the Panthers never found a solution and came out on the short end of a 44-34 outcome Friday night to shortcircuit another championship season for them.
The Rockets (11-12) advance to the regional final at 7 p.m. tonight at Appleton North.
The sting of the sudden conclusion of a highly successful season was hard to hide.
“It doesn’t feel good right now,” said SPASH coach Dave Hauser choking back his emotions. “I guess this group (of six seniors) is a little more special to me with number 40 (daughter Nicki) in there. It was an honor to coach this group.
“I’m not sure we were supposed to win this many games,” he added. “We’re still going to be (Wisconsin Valley) conference champions when we wake up tomorrow.”
For the briefest of moments there was a glimmer of hope the Panthers would live to play another day.
Unable to find any sort of rhythm through the opening 24 minutes, SPASH found a spark to start the fourth quarter courtesy of the senior tandem of Heather Woyak and Smola.
Woyak opened the quarter with four straight free throws, and Smola capped off a 9-0 run with a three-point play to give the Panthers their first lead of the game at 27-26 with 5 minutes, 51 seconds left in regulation.
“I thought Neenah came in here and controlled the tempo and kept us off balance. I don’t think we ever got comfortable except for a 3-minute stretch there in the fourth quarter,” coach Hauser said. “I thought maybe we turned a corner there.”
Instead, SPASH would run into a dead end.
After Woyak scored to put the Panthers up 29-26, Neenah’s Alyssa Barnes thwarted the momentum by draining a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game.
The hoop appeared to deflate SPASH while providing the impetus for a decisive closing stretch by the Rockets, who capitalized on three consecutive turnovers to score eight straight points at the free throw line and build a commanding 37-29 cushion.
“We felt like if we came out with some defensive intensity, we would be in good shape,” Neenah coach Andy Braunel said. “They’re one of the most physical teams we played during the season, and we felt like we needed to put pressure on their perimeter.”
It was the fourth game the teams have played, including meeting in the WIAA tournament each of the past two seasons, in a span of 14 months.
And this was the first time the Rockets came out on top, keeping their season alive this time by connecting on 13 of 4 free throws with the game on the line in the closing minutes.
Rylee Engelland paced Neenah with 14 points, with nine coming in the final quarter. Smola finished with 13 points in her final game before leaving late with an injury.
For whatever reasons, the Panthers had trouble coping with Neenah’s pressure and quickness in the latest matchup.
“They’re quicker than us and our timing was off. They jammed up the passing lanes, and cutters and screeners, and we never got into a rhythm,” coach Hauser said. “In (WIAA) tournament basketball, it doesn’t have to be pretty and we were hoping to win after all that. They survived and we didn’t.”
NEENAH (44): Leah Perras 7, Kendra Bombinski 4, Madi Resch 2, Brooke Hiltunen 8, Rylee Engelland 14, Alyssa Barnes 3, Bree Zehren 6.
SPASH (34): Haley Kolbeck 3, Heather Woyak 9, McKenzie Taggatz 1, Nikki Hauser 8, Taylor Smola 13.
3-pointers: Neenah 4 (Perras, Barnes, Zehren 2), SPASH 2 (Hauser, Woyak).
Records: SPASH 17-6; Neenah 11-12.