The area outside the Kohl Center locker rooms contained a smiling Dave Shaw on Friday afternoon.
He had good reason to be ecstatic as the fourth-year Pulaski head coach had just seen his team survive a 46-42 overtime slugfest with defending state champion Onalaska on Friday in a WIAA Division 2 boys basketball state semifinal.
Pulaski (23-4) will battle Wisconsin Lutheran in the Division 2 championship game at 6:35 p.m. Saturday.
The Red Raiders will be gunning for their first state title.
“I’m just so happy for our community, our high school and especially for our kids that they have this opportunity,” Shaw said. “(Former Pulaski coach Fred) Kestly talked to us about how important it was for us to stay focused and be in tune and really have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in our basketball history.”
The Red Raiders, making their third state appearance and first since 1989, squandered a 30-23 lead early in the fourth quarter to the Hilltoppers.
Onalaska (24-3) chipped away at the lead on three-pointers from Ben Skogen and Connor Helgeson. A basket from Matt Thomas with 3:08 remaining gave the Hilltoppers a 31-30 lead, but Pulaski answered on Jordan Stiede’s three-pointer at the 1:45 mark.
Thomas’ jumper tied the game to send it into overtime as Pulaski was unable to hit on its last shot in regulation, but it was Stiede’s three-pointer that was crucial in breaking up the Onalaska run.
His big shot also set up momentum for Pulaski in overtime.
“We just needed one basket to stop it and Jordan hit a big three and that put the kibosh to that,” said Cody Wichmann, who led Pulaski with 17 points. “And from there we just played with confidence the rest of the way out.”
Stiede, who finished with 13 points, continued his hot shooting to start the overtime, burying a three-pointer that gave Pulaski a lead it would never relinquish.
A layup from Luke VanLanen followed and the Red Raiders converted on eight-of-11 free throws to hold off the Hilltoppers.
Wichmann had a key block of the Iowa State-bound Thomas in the closing seconds of overtime.
Thomas led all scorers with 25 points, but Pulaski did a good job of limiting his looks by employing an effective mix of man defense as well as 1-3-1 zone.
“I knew it was going to be a one-possession game just because you don’t get many possessions against them,” Onalaska coach Craig Kowal said. “Our weakness is that we have a hard time scoring inside and against a very good defensive team that was switching defenses, we weren’t able to get in any easy ones. Throughout the course of the game, you need to get a few points, especially in the lane.”
Correcting Pulaski’s struggles in the fourth quarter was something that Shaw said he and his coaching staff will look at heading into Saturday’s championship game.
“We were just hoping that somebody could step up for a play and it appeared everybody was looking for somebody else to do that at the time,” Shaw said. “Hopefully, we can learn from that and not allow that to happen tomorrow.”
Stiede described the feeling of competing for the Division 2 state championship game as “amazing.”
“I mean the whole community is coming together for this,” he said. “We had an amazing sendoff yesterday. And I was actually contacted (by) the point guard on the 1975 state team (Paul Liss) and he wished me good luck. That just shows how everybody is coming together behind our team. Something like this hasn’t happened in a long time.”