Kewaunee's Kelsey Stangel goes for a shot against Lodi's Sierra Jiran on Friday in a Division 3 semifinal of the WIAA state girls basketball tournament at the Resch Center. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
ASHWAUBENON — The Kewaunee girls basketball team collectively looked like a prizefighter with one more round left to fight on Friday at the Resch Center.
Seniors Kelsey Stangel and Jill Kleiman had icepacks wrapped around their knees, while Alex Richard’s left calf was heavily swollen and as purple as her No. 34 jersey.
But after slugging out a 40-27 victory over Lodi to advance to the WIAA Division 3 state championship game for a third straight season, the Storm players didn’t mind dealing with their ailments.
They’ve come to expect them in Kewaunee’s quest to repeat as the D3 champion.
“We knew it would be like this,” said Kleiman, who had eight points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals.
“We just have to physically stay strong, but mentally stay strong (as well). If we’re mentally strong then we know we can finish and when that final bell rings, then we know we did it.”
Kewaunee (26-1) led throughout against the Blue Devils to pick up its 22nd straight win by holding an opponent to fewer than 30 points for the 16th time this season.
The Storm’s defense was crucial considering it struggled to finish around the basket offensively in the first half. Kewaunee went 8-for-25 (32.0 percent) from the field before halftime while facing mostly a 2-3 zone from Lodi, which was making its first state appearance.
“It was a struggle because I felt like we had to find our rhythm more,” said Richard, who had 14 points. “Lodi did a very good job to pack it in, so there were more outside shots. But we definitely pulled it off by making it on the outside and then being able to bring it to the inside.”
After letting a 10-point lead dwindle down to five 2 minutes into the fourth quarter, Kewaunee responded and seemed to take all the air out of the Blue Devils’ sails when Stangel hit a 3 and came back with a layup in transition off a steal by Kleiman.
“We had great all-around defense in the end,” said Stangel, who had 17 points and 10 rebounds. “We had steals, rebounds, turned passes up the floor, which helped get the lead back up.”
Collectively, the combination of Stangel, Richard and Kleiman accounted for all but one of Kewaunee’s points.
The Blue Devils (24-3) were led by junior guard Gretchen Schutz’s seven points and five assists.
Lodi coach Kristi Paskey felt her team couldn’t withstand the pressure of Kewaunee’s man defense at the end, as it began to wear down in the paint against Richard (6-foot-0) and Stangel (5-10), who are cousins and four-year starters.
“Those girls, you see them on film, it’s one thing,” Paskey said. “But you see them in person, and (Richard) and (Stangel) walked by us, we were in awe. Those girls are some built, strong girls. We knew we were going to have a challenge.”
The next challenge for the Storm and its six seniors, including five starters, is to avoid having its third straight state appearance at the varsity level end the way it did in grade school.
After winning back-to-back youth state titles, the group came up short in the finals in eighth grade.
“This is it. This is the game. Either way it’s our last game,” Stangel said about facing East Troy in the championship at 3:05 p.m. Saturday. East Troy beat Neillsvillle 68-56 in its semifinal game.
“We only have a six-, seven-man rotation, which is small. We know that. But we want to be on the court. We want to be playing in this atmosphere. This is where we want to be.”
Kewaunee …7 13 6 14 — 40
Lodi…4 10 5 8 — 27
K: Stangel 17, Richard 14, Kudick 1, Kleiman 8. 3pt: Stangel 1, Kleiman 2. FT: 7-13. F: 8.
L: Jiran 2, Baker 6, Schutz 7, Gallagher 3, Paulson 4, Granath 5. 3pt: Gallagher 1, Granath 1. FT: 1-1. F: 13.