The Prairie School girls basketball team won just one of its first 10 games and finished the regular season on a six-game losing streak.
But what a difference the WIAA playoffs have made.
After going just 3-13 in the tough Metro Classic Conference during the regular season, the Hawks have, by comparison, cruised through their three Division 4 regional games, winning each to reach Thursday’s sectional semifinal.
Prairie (8-17) will face No. 1 seed Milwaukee Academy of Science (20-4) in the sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday at Waukesha West High School.
After dominating Kenosha Christian Life 70-15 at Prairie Feb. 20, the Hawks went on the road for their two regional games.
The most satisfying of the three regional games was the semifinal Friday at Racine Lutheran, which beat Prairie 67-50 Dec. 12 and 51-40 Jan. 26 in MCC play. The Hawks turned the tables for a 65-52 victory, then capped their regional run with a 42-35 victory over Living Word Lutheran Saturday at Jackson.
Prairie’s record wasn’t for lack of effort.
“We worked hard every day and we had it, but the wins weren’t coming to us,” junior guard Brooke Foster said. “The hard work and everything now is coming together at this time when it matters the most.”
Second-year coach Alan Mills said the defense has always been there — the Hawks held opponents to an average of 50.9 points per game during the 22-game regular season — but their offense struggled often, averaging just 41.7 per game.
In three of their final six regular-season games, consecutive games against Racine Lutheran (Jan. 26), Shoreland Lutheran (Feb. 2) and Kenosha St. Joseph (Feb. 6), Prairie led at halftime and even into the latter stages of the game, only to see the offense all but disappear.
“We missed good shots, mostly because we were a little anxious,” Mills said. “Then we would string together live-ball turnovers, which always finished with layups on the other end. We would go from a two- to four-point game, or our lead, and suddenly we’re down double digits and our girls start hanging their heads.”
That has all changed. Prairie outscored its three opponents by an average of 59-34 and have gotten a second wind.
“We’ve been saying all year that we’re so close and they began to realize they are that close,” Mills said. “Slowly but surely, they have more confidence.”
Senior forward Quinn Shannon, who played basketball as a freshman but skipped the last two years before coming out this year, said it just happened.
“I think our chemistry started to build going into the playoffs and we finally started to believe in ourselves to win,” Shannon said, “I don’t know — something just clicked in the team. We’ve definitely been stronger on defense from the beginning of the season compared to offense, but the offense has been starting to pick up.”
Solving their second-half woes has been critical to Prairie’s playoff run. They just decided they needed to kick things into gear.
“In a lot of games we were winning, but we would get a little complacent,” junior forward Jolie Larson said. “Going into the playoffs, we talked about that. We’re not going to be just a first-half team — we’re going to go in and be aggressive the entire game.
“Going in to the playoffs, we all came in and everything felt right.”
Foster leads the Hawks in scoring with an 11.1 average and also averages 2.9 assists, but Larson (9.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 22 blocks), freshman guard Abby Decker (7.9 points), Shannon (7.5 points) and sophomore guard Andrea Palmen (7.4 points, 2.8 assists) have also done their share of scoring. There is no single player to key on.
“We’ve been fortunate for the last month to have multiple girls score,” Mills said. “Having somebody different each night makes us better.”
Prairie is going to have its hands full with Academy of Science. The Novas feature the No. 1 scorer in the state, Shemera Williams, who averages 40.5 points per game. Williams has good support in Tamara Pugh-Torres (13.3) and Winona Gardner (8.2).
“They’re the real deal,” Mills said. “We have to go and do what we’ve done all year. We definitely have to hold her under her average and hold her teammates hold under theirs. We have to play with confidence on offense, we have to take care of the ball and finish in the post.”