SOMERS — The guys in the white Saturday night were the mighty St. Catherine’s High School boys basketball team. These guys have gone 49-1 the last two seasons and have every intention of completing a mission that was derailed by a pandemic last March. And that’s a state championship.
The guys in the purple were a resourceful bunch known as Racine Lutheran. They were led by a local legend named Jeff Christensen who was coaching his 791st and final career game. And they were determined to give St. Catherine’s everything it could handle in this WIAA Division 3 regional championship at Shoreland Lutheran.
For the first half, that’s just what the Crusaders did.
But after leading just 23-20 at halftime, St. Catherine’s gradually pulled away in the second half to win 51-33. Next up for the top-seeded Angels (24-1) is a sectional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday against No. 4 Fond du Lac St.Mary’s Springs (17-5). That game will also be held at Shoreland Lutheran.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” said senior guard Kamari McGee, a UW-Green Bay recruit who led the Angels with 13 points. “That’s the key because day in and day out, we’re facing good teams along the way.
“The games aren’t easy, so we just have to take them game by game.”
As for Christensen, who turns 67 in March, it’s all over after a 33-year career during which he went 525-266 with four state championships. The Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Famer, who in 2019 became just the 29th coach in state history to reach 500 career victories, announced to his players in their dressing room after the game that he was retiring.
“He’s a great coach and he’s an even better person,” senior guard Brady Wilks said. “I grew up watching him coach and then I got to play for him.
“A lot of people see him as a big loud guy, but that’s not really who he is. I mean, he is loud, but he cares about each and every one of his players and everyone that he knows and he’s a great guy.”
Lutheran (13-9), which had won four straight going into Saturday’s game, went in with a mentality of trying to topple a giant. St. Catherine’s had defeated Lutheran 78-41 and 56-34 during the regular season and the odds were obviously stacked against the Crusaders.
But during the first half, it appeared as if Lutheran just might put itself in position to pull off a shocker. Slowing things down and patiently firing crisp passes until someone got open for a good shot, the Crusaders hung in there.
Paced by Scooter Molbeck, who scored eight of his game-high 17 points in the first half, Lutheran took leads of 8-7, 13-10 and 20-18. The Crusaders stayed the course and they didn’t get rattled with their slow-paced offense.
“I think it was pretty smart to do that,” McGee said. “They made us really lock in and focus on our defense.”
Meanwhile, Calvin Hunter was helping keep the Angels afloat in the first half. The first cousin of All-State guard Tyrese Hunter made four 3-pointers and scored all 12 of his points in the first 18 minutes.
His performance was particularly meaningful because Tyrese Hunter, who is still feeling the effects of an ankle injury he suffered Jan. 23, according to St. Catherine’s coach Nick Bennett, was held to two points in the first half. He finished with six points, four assists and two steals.
“Honestly, if he didn’t hit those, we might have been down (at halftime),” McGee said of Calvin Hunter. “He stepped up big for us. He’s my guy.”
But any thoughts of Lutheran extending Christensen’s coaching career at least another game gradually diminished in the second half. The Angels opened the half with a 13-4 run to take a 36-24 advantage and were not seriously threatened again.
While Calvin Hunter carried the Angels in the first half, Marcel Tyler carried much of the load in the second half, when he scored all 11 of his points.
“We just talked about hopefully getting more paint touches and more inside-out shots,” Bennett said of his halftime talk. “Calvin saved us in the first half. He shot very well. And then in the second half, we were sharing the ball more. We had a bunch more guys score.”
When asked to assess the second half, Christensen said: “It was their defense, quite honestly. They got in our grill and we just couldn’t get off many good shots at all. We forced a few, but we had to because we needed to score some points.
“Their defense dictated the game in the second half and that was it.”
And now it’s also it for Christensen, one of the longest-tenured coaches in Racine County history. The 1972 Lutheran graduate took his alma mater’s basketball program to new heights in the last 33 years, which included a perfect record during the 1990-91 season, which was just Christensen’s third as coach.
Only three other county boys basketball programs have had undefeated state championship seasons.
Emerging from Lutheran’s dressing room after the game, Christensen had moist eyes when he called back to his players, “I’ll still be around.” And when he addressed his retirement, Christensen’s became emotional.
“I feel sadness,” he said as his voice cracked. “But it’s been a long time and it’s time to go. I realize that. Tomorrow, I’ll be perfectly fine, but tonight it’s a little weepy.
“I gave my heart and soul to this and I’m hoping the next guy has some success. I’ll come and watch and life will go on.”
Bennett, who was a month away from his seventh birthday when Christensen coached his first game at Lutheran on Nov. 18, 1988, has developed a deep admiration for him during the five years Bennett has been at St. Catherine’s.
“I know it gets said too much, but this is the case: he’s a heck of a coach, but he’s a better guy behind the scenes,” Bennett said. “He’s funny, he’s fun-loving and in the five years I’ve been here, he’s been a pleasure to get to know.
“His Racine Lutheran teams are always well prepared, they always play really, really hard and it’s always a challenge going against him. He’ll be sorely missed in the coaching community.”
McGee was succinct when asked about Christensen.
“He has his teams so disciplined that I have nothing but a whole lot of respect for him,” he said.