APPLETON – Free throw shooting isn’t the most dazzling part of tournament basketball.
Yet, it often determines who advances and who goes home.
Appleton North’s superiority from the foul line Thursday night over cross-town rival Appleton West gave the Lightning the lift it needed to fight off a challenge from the Terrors.
North sank nine of 10 free throws in the final two minutes to secure a hard-earned 61-47 victory in a WIAA Division 1 girls’ basketball sectional semifinal at Appleton East High School.
LIVESTREAM REPLAY:Appleton North defeats Appleton West
The top-seeded Lightning (25-0) will play Chippewa Falls (19-6) on Saturday in a 1 p.m. sectional final at D.C. Everest High School. Chippewa Falls is a No. 4 seed.
North, ranked No. 1 in Division 1 in the Associated Press and Wissports.net polls, is seeking its second straight trip to the state tournament at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
“We’re trying to not get too excited and just focus on the next game and not look ahead,” said Kari Brekke, North’s stellar junior guard.
The Lightning used balanced scoring and sensational free throw shooting to win its third game of the season over a much-improved West team.
The game was much closer than the score indicates and the Terrors might have been able to send the game to the wire with better work from the foul line. While North sank 16 of 17 free throws, West converted just 11 of 25 foul shots and was just 4 of 11 from the line in the final five minutes, missing the front end of two one-and-ones.
“We do a lot of mental training in practice and put ourselves in these type of situations,” said Brekke, who drilled all four of her free throw attempts in the closing minutes. “We’ve been doing this type of preparation since November. To us, hitting a free throw in a sectional semifinal is no different than hitting a free throw in practice.”
North, though, hasn’t exactly been lights-out from the foul line this season.
“To be honest, we’ve been streaky,” said North coach Joe Russom. “Tonight, we were dead-on, but you go back to our regional final against Oshkosh North and we were just 52 percent. The kids just need to relax and knock them down, which they did tonight. They’ve been in these pressure situations before and that makes a big difference.”
North needed the clutch free throws at crunch time to pull away from the pumped-up Terrors (19-6), who slashed a 13-point halftime deficit to 42-37 with 12 minutes remaining.
But the Lightning never panicked. Sophomore Paige Schabo came off a screen and drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key and Sydney Levy followed with four straight points to push North’s lead back to 49-37. West moved no closer than seven the rest of the way, clanging one free throw after another off the rim.
“We got off to a slow start and that kind of put us behind the eight-ball,” said West coach Jim Brown. “But the girls played hard and we gave ourselves a chance. I’m proud of them. A lot of teams might have folded.”
Brown said the Terrors have shot well from the free throw line all season.
“We had to work so hard to get back in the game,” Brown said. “We had to do a lot of chasing in the half court and it was a pretty fast game in the first half, so yeah, fatigue may have been a factor in the free throws.”
Levy, who fouled out with 4:49 left, topped the Lightning with 19 points, while Brekke added 18 and Schabo contributed 15.
“It was a game of runs and we were fortunate enough to make the necessary adjustments in the second half,” said Russom. “I challenged the kids on rebounding and getting to the line, and they did both.
“The West-North rivalry is fun. It’s a little different than the North-East rivalry. There’s so much friendship between the two schools and it just makes for a lot of energy. There was great energy out there tonight and their kids played hard. I think they gave everything in their tank. We just had a little more.”
Jenna Hoffman led the Terrors with 13 points, while Sydney Cocking added 11.
“It was so much fun coaching them this year,” said Brown, who completed his first year as West coach. “They understand the big picture and they’re about the whole rather than the parts. That’s why we could come back in a game like this. We keep going and going and all of a sudden we have a chance. I’m proud of them. We just need to keep that train rolling next year.”
Appleton West: Vantassel 1, Knauer 4, Cocking 11, Zuleger 7, Smith 4, Fortune 4, Lietzke 2, Hoffman 13, Gehl 1. Totals 17 11-25 47. Three-pointers: Fortune, Cocking. Fouls: 17.
Appleton North: Brekke 18, Pohlman 5, Klitzke 4, Levy 19, Schabo 15. Totals 18 16-17 61. Three-pointers: Brekke 3, Levy 3, Schabo 3. Fouls: 21.
Tim Froberg: 920-993-7183 or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg