Entering the fourth quarter at the Kohl Center comfortably leading Lodi 41-24, Aquinas players seemed to relax, knowing that their second state championship in three years lay just eight minutes out of their grasp.
But, the Blue Devils had no plans of letting Blugolds senior star Bronson Koenig and his teammates accomplish the feat without a fight.
Outscoring their opponent 24-12 in a valiant fourth quarter effort, Lodi made the final minutes of the Division 3 State Championship Game a frantic finish, trimming Aquinas’ lead at one point to only three points. But, timely free throw shooting by the Blugolds’ Nolan Ritter and Koenig proved to be the difference, as Aquinas held on to win 53-48.
“We’re probably, the best word to use is, relieved,” Aquinas head coach Rick Schneider said. “Second half, they got it going. They’re a great team. We knew they were going to come back. They did. We’re just glad we got out of here with a ‘W.’”
It wasn’t a very solid showing in the fourth quarter for Koenig, a member of the Wisconsin Badgers’ 2013 recruiting class, who finished with 16 points and five assists on the afternoon.
Koenig committed three of Aquinas’ six fourth quarter turnovers, with the three turnovers leading to seven points for Lodi during their desperate run that delighted the Kohl Center crowd.
The senior never looked comfortable in the game, at times looking out of breath with his hands on his side and struggling to find a rhythm on the offensive end.
“I’m exhausted today,” Koenig said after the game. “I was short on my jump shot, I started cramping up in my left calf. In the beginning I couldn’t catch my breath at all.”
With nothing left to lose, Lodi turned up the defensive pressure early in the game’s final quarter, sending two to three defenders at any Blugolds’ player that held the ball.
Feeding off six Aquinas turnovers in the fourth quarter, Lodi made their desperate final push. After a layup by the Blugolds Michael Conway made it a 43-24 lead, Blue Devils’ junior Gable Smith hit a three-pointer to spark the team’s 16-0 run.
Fellow junior Jordan Shea picked Koenig’s pocket on the following possession, running the court to his rightside and dumping the ball for a cutting layup by senior Donnie Manke. The senior was also fouled on the shot, but was unable to convert the three-point play.
Then, it became the Kris Seffrood show, as Lodi’s senior guard caught fire from beyond the arc, draining three shots from deep over the next two minutes, part of his 19 points on the afternoon. Running off a combination of screens and shooting a pair of stepback threes, the last trifecta cut the Bluegolds’ lead to just three points with 2:18 left in the fourth.
“When they made the run I was telling my teammates to calm down and don’t panic,” Koenig said. “I just told our guys to keep playing and I tried to be the best leader I could be.”
And that’s something Ritter took note of. With the double team’s coming at Aquinas like never before, it was Ritter who effectively sealed the Blugolds’ championship.
After Lodi missed a layup to bring its deficit to a single point, Ritter got the ball and patiently handled the pressure, forcing a foul with just 1:18 left.
Taking the line for the 1-and-1 bonus free throws, Ritter calmly sank them both, giving his team their first points since Conway’s layup at the 7:02 mark to open the quarter.
Lodi’s Brady Moses quickly answered with a jumper to cut the lead back to three. After Koenig was denied the ball, Ritter once again found himself fouled and at the line for another 1-and-1 situation.
Like the previous trip, Ritter came up clutch again, sinking both shots and bringing the lead back to three. But, Shea forced a quick foul and sank two free throws to bring the Aquinas lead back to three with 29 seconds left.
Koenig found a bit of redemption when he came up big when it mattered most, catching the ball on the inbounds and forcing Lodi to foul. Shooting the double bonus, Koenig calmly sank both of his free throws.
The point guard also came up with a steal to seal the game, putting his hands on an errant Blue Devils’ pass.
With the win, Aquinas secured their second championship in three years and, for both Conway and Koenig, who started on the 2011 championship team, out as champions once more after the two missed extended time a year ago.
“With me and Bronson being out last year, I just wanted to make sure we could have a possibility of getting back out here this year,” Conway said.
“We’ve been playing together since sixth, seventh grade. To finally get back to the state championship our senior year was huge to me.”