HAMMOND, Wis.-- Last Friday’s Division 3 state semifinal between St. Croix Central and Lake Country Lutheran at Menominee Nation Arena in Oshkosh figured to be a high-scoring affair. Instead it turned into a defensive battle that Lake Country Lutheran came out on top of, 59-47.

The score was just 25-19 in favor of Lake Country Lutheran at the half. St. Croix Central pulled to within one five times in the second half but shot just 35 percent from the field, including 8-of-25 from 3-point range, while committing 18 turnovers and could never get over the hump.

St. Croix Central senior Kelson Klin hits a hook shot over a pair of Lake Country Lutheran defenders in the second half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to the Lightning in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central senior Kelson Klin hits a hook shot over a pair of Lake Country Lutheran defenders in the second half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to the Lightning in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

“We didn't shoot very well,” Panther coach Randy Jordan said. “I thought we did everything we wanted to do defensively but their defense was pretty good and we just missed some easy baskets.”

St. Croix Central held Lake Country Lutheran to 16 points below their season average of 76, but the Panthers’ 47 points was 27 below their average of 74. Both teams shot right around 35 percent from the field, but after pulling to within one, 48-47, with three minutes, 34 seconds remaining, St. Croix Central went 0-for-5 down the stretch while being outscored 11-0.

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St. Croix Central’s Jackson Pettit (4) blocks Lake Country Lutheran’s Luke Haertle’s shot from behind as Spencer Trainor (12) defends in front in the second half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central’s Jackson Pettit (4) blocks Lake Country Lutheran’s Luke Haertle’s shot from behind as Spencer Trainor (12) defends in front in the second half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

“I think it was a combination of the bigger court and probably all the other lines that were on the floor that shouldn’t have been there,” Jordan said, referring to the 50th anniversary replica floor of the original Milwaukee Bucks court at the MECCA in Milwaukee and the three sets of 3-point lines. “It would have been nice if they allowed us to practice there the day before to get used to it.”

The tone was set early as it took Lake Country Lutheran over three minutes to score the first basket of the game. Gabe Siler answered with a 3-pointer for St. Croix Central and the Panthers led 12-8 after another Siler 3-pointer with 9:39 remaining in the first half. But after the score was tied 19-19 with 4:33 left, the Lightning closed the half with a 6-0 run to open up a 25-19 lead.

St. Croix Central scored the first five points of the second half on a layup by Carson Hinzman and a 3-pointer from Colin Hackbarth to pull to within one, and tied the score 39-39 on a 3-pointer by Jackson Pettit with 8:33 remaining.

St. Croix Central junior Carson Hinzman beats Lake Country Lutheran’s Ben Lubbers (21) for a basket in the first half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central junior Carson Hinzman beats Lake Country Lutheran’s Ben Lubbers (21) for a basket in the first half of the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

The Panthers trailed by a point four more times in the game, the last 48-47 with 3:34 left following a Kelson Klin layup. But those were the last Panther points and Lake Country Lutheran got a 3-pointer and went 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the final minute to seal the win.

Pettit scored 13 points in the loss, including three 3-pointers, while Hackbarth hit three threes to finish with nine points. Siler finished with seven points, all in the first half, in addition to seven assists, and Conner Nilssen contributed seven points and six rebounds off the bench. Hinzman added six points and five rebounds while Klin had five points and seven boards.

The Panthers finished the season with a record of 23-3 while Lake Country Lutheran went on to lose to Racine St. Catherine 53-44 in Friday night’s title game to finish 26-2.

Enjoying the ride

This year marked the first time since 1920, with the exception of 1936, that the state boys’ basketball tournament was not played in Madison. But Jordan said that didn’t matter to the Panthers, who were making their first-ever state tournament appearance.

“It was a good trip for them,” he said. “I don't think it mattered that it wasn't Madison, it was still a great experience for them. Our community and our parents did a nice job of giving us a send off before we left. We were escorted out of town with the fire department, driving through our elementary schools and driving through our middle school and having the kids outside with signs and stuff. I think they got the full experience.”

St. Croix Central seniors Gabe Siler (23), Jackson Pettit and Kelson Klin are embraced by their teammates as they leave the court for the final time together with 18.9 seconds remaining in the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
St. Croix Central seniors Gabe Siler (23), Jackson Pettit and Kelson Klin are embraced by their teammates as they leave the court for the final time together with 18.9 seconds remaining in the Panthers’ 59-47 loss to Lake Country Lutheran in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal Friday, March 5, in Oshkosh. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Staying healthy also took on a whole new meaning in this season of COVID, making the trip to state even more special. Jordan said the Panthers had just one player quarantine in the middle of the season, and credits that to the players’ commitment to each other.

“We harped on that every day,” he said. “They had to make some sacrifices and do some things like distance from people and, and things like that. They did a nice job of doing that. And it paid off with the chance to play in the state tournament.”

St. Croix Central will lose six seniors to graduation, including Middle Border Conference Player of the Year Siler and All-MBC selections Pettit and Klin. But Jordan said this year’s team raised the bar for the Panther program, and predicts good things in the years to come.

“I think it sets the bar high, a lot higher than what it has been in the previous years,” he said. “And I think our younger kids have bought it. We had three or four kids in the weight room already this morning. The expectations are definitely going to be higher, but I think instead of building I think we'll be able to reload. Our JV lost one game this season and our B squad lost three or four. And it's been that way the last two years.”

Jordan said this year’s Panther squad set a good example for the younger players.

“I just love the way the kids came out and worked each and every day and worked hard to improve,” he said. “That's what I look at as they come to practice every day, ready to work and learn and enjoy themselves. A lot of times teams get into a grind in the middle of the year and I just didn't see that this year. I just thought the kids were raring to go. They had a goal to make it to state and they got there.”