WAUKESHA — Five minutes or so remained in a game The Prairie School School boys basketball team just had to win when a coach locked eyes with his star on the Waukesha West court.
Milwaukee Destiny had eliminated Prairie from the playoffs each of the last two seasons and this WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal was very much hanging in the balance. Prairie coach Jason Atanasoff reminded JC Butler that this was the Hawks' year and Butler responded with one of his sly smiles.
A few minutes later, the Hawks had scratched a nasty itch with a 66-57 victory that moves them within one victory of their first appearance in the WIAA State Tournament.
That dream became a reality largely because the same young man who greeted his coach with that reassuring smile came through with 28 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and a steal.
Prairie (21-4), which has won 13 straight games, will earn its first berth in the WIAA Tournament with a victory over Manitowoc Roncalli, which beat Howards Grove 61-58 in triple overtime in the other sectional semifinal. The sectional championship will be played at 1 p.m. Saturday at Waukesha South.
"I said, 'No more — this is our time,' " Atanasoff said. "He gave me that smile of his and flashed those pearly whites and I knew we were good to go."
The 6-foot-5 Butler, who will play for University of California-Irvine next season, wasn't about to let his season end yet. And even though he had picked up his third foul with 14:53 left in the second half, he didn't hold anything back after a brief trip to the bench.
"I just knew we had to dig deep and really secure the win," said Butler, a third-team Associated Press All-State player last season. "We had to lock up on defense and really be patient on offense."
While Butler carried the lead, he had plenty of help. Start with Logan Krekling, who had 16 points, seven assists, six rebounds and went 5 for 7 from the floor, including 2 for 3 from 3-point range. His 3-pointers came on successive possessions in the second half, rallying Prairie from a 41-39 deficit to a 45-43 lead.
Was Krekling worried when Butler went to the bench with three fouls and Destiny (18-6) responded with a 9-0 run to take a 41-36 lead?
"No, we weren't worried at all," Krekling said. "The people who came off the bench have really been big for us this year. And the rest of the starters know we can score without (Butler) and he knows we can. He trusts us when he comes out and we know that when he comes back, we'll be in great position for him."
And then there was Buddy Ladwig, who was the recipient of a difficult assignment Thursday night. Ladwig was entrusted with tailing Diovonte Caldwell, a left-handed sharpshooter who is 6-2 — two inches taller than Ladwig — for most of the second half.
Caldwell, who averages a team-high 18.1 points per game, scored 21.
"He was one of the quickest players I ever tried to guard," Ladwig said. "He's a lefty, but he's dominant with both hands, so that makes it even more difficult. And he's really good coming off those screens. If you try to defend him on one screen, all of a sudden he's coming off on another. But with the help of my team, we stopped him, sort of."
But the centerpiece was Butler, who put on a show with his father, two-time NBA All-Star Caron Butler, in attendance. Whether it was electrifying the crowd with dunks, one of which was after a steal and one of which came on an alley-oop pass from freshman Isaiah Hoyt — locking down defensively inside or setting up teammates with passes, Butler did a little bit of everything.
"They were upping him, they were pressuring him, but he kept his cool and he made some big shots," Krekling said. "He played defense ... he did it all. He was great."
And when it was over, this senior-dominated team had one of its most satisfying victories.
"It means everything," Krekling said. "They knocked us out the past few years. Sophomore year was a rough one. Last year, we really wanted it and ended up not getting it (Destiny went on to the Division 4 state championship). Finally beating them this year is amazing, but it's not over yet."
• Tickets for Saturday's sectional final will be sold Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the welcome desk at the Prairie School.
Prairie 66, Destiny 57
Butler 9 9-12 28, Krekling 5 4-6 16, Hua 0 0-0 0, May 1 2-2 4, Osiecki 0 0-0 0, Ladwig 1 2-2 4, Hoyt 0 0-0 0, Mikaelian 5 2-4 14. Totals 21 19-26 66.
Dean 3 2-2 8, Smith 4 0-0 12, Caldwell 8 4-5 21, J. Johnson 1 0-0 3, Jones 2 2-2 6, Brown 2 0-0 4, M. Johnson 0 0-0 0, Kinnebrew 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 9-11 57.
Halftime—Prairie 29, Destiny 26. 3-point goals— Butler, Krekling 2, Mikaelian 2, Smith 4, Caldwell, J. Johnson. Total fouls—Prairie 12, Destiny 23. Fouled out—Dean. Rebounds—Prairie 33 (Mikaelian 11).