Brookfield Central boys basketball coach Dan Wandrey knows his Greater Metro Conference-leading team is talented, but he also knows that it's young and has to grow up some before it can achieve all the things it wants.
It did some of that growing in a dramatic and entertaining battle Jan. 21 before a noisy Lancer gym, a 78-75 victory over Menomonee Falls with first place in the Greater Metro Conference on the line.
Sophomore guard Gage Malensek was one of those who grew up in a big way. With the Lancers desperately holding off an intense Indians comeback late in the game, he went 6 for 6 from the foul line in the final 1:33, including two that stretched the lead to 75-72 with 44 seconds left and another pair with just 10.5 seconds to go to make it 78-75.
All told, Malensek was an impressive 11 of 12 from the line for the game.
"Those last four free throws that he hit were as pressure-packed as you could get," said Wandrey, "but he just stepped up there with confidence and nailed them. We've been talking about this all year, that they need to prepare themselves (mentally). The coaches can't do it all the time with guilt trips. ...They have to do by themselves.
"This was a great bounceback week."
The win lifted the Lancers to 6-1 in league play and 12-1 overall while Falls fell into a tie for second with Brookfield East at 5-2 and 11-4 overall.
Falls, which roared out to a 23-9 lead only to have the hot-shooting Lancers completely erase the advantage and take a 43-33 lead at the break, had to rally from down 64-47 with 10:32 just to make the game as close as it was.
Coach Steve Showalter was proud of the effort, but noted that there were several things the Indians could have done to help themselves.
"It was an interesting game," he said. "They dug a hole for themselves, and then they fight back. We dig a hole and then we fight back. I was pleased that we were able to come back, but we missed some tough free throws at the end (10 of 18 for the game), and we just put them on the line way too much (21-for-29). They were able to go to the foul line (and score) while we were having to fight for everything we got. That's just no way to win a game."
But the Indians almost did. The Lancers closed the first half with a 17-2 run to take that 43-33 halftime advantage. Then, they began the second half by hitting eight of their first 11 shots from the field. A 3-pointer by sophomore Cole Nau made it 64-47 with 10:32 left, and it looked like the Lancers were going to coast home with an impressive win.
Falls, however, had other ideas.
"They press and they push and they bring in new guys in waves," Wandrey said. "That's sometimes hard to deal with."
And that's how Falls got back into the game as the Indians went on a 13-0 run to close the gap to 65-60 with 6:23 to go.
They also got a big lift from junior guard Payton Malone. He had seven 3-pointers in the game, including two in the rally. His shot from the wing cut Central's lead to 68-67 with 4:57 left.
"He's a young guy who comes off the bench," Showalter said. "He's been hurt a lot so far, but we all know he can shoot."
From that point on, the Lancers were just hanging on for dear life, as Malone hit another 3 with 1:49 to go to cut the margin to 71-70.
Malensek stepped to the line to hit his first pair of key free throws to make it 73-70.
But a critical sequence with about 1:13 left proved to be a missed opportunity. Nate Schuster hit the first free throw to make it 73-71. He missed the second, Falls got the rebound and Jalen Dixon was fouled. He hit the first free throw to make it 73-72 with 1:10 left. He missed the second, but Falls got the rebound again. Two more free throws missed the mark, however, and the Lancers were eventually able to clear the rebound.
Malensek then hit another pair of free throws with 44 seconds left and, after another Falls miss, senior Chris Post hit one of two to tosses to make it 76-72 Central with 31 seconds left.
Falls' Justin Gruber hit a free throw and Schuster got a bucket to make it 76-75 with 13 seconds left. So, Malensek stepped to the line one more time and coolly gave the Lancers their eventual margin of victory.
Central played good defense on the final sequence, and a Falls last 3-point attempt was well off the mark.
Malone led all scorers with 23 points, while Schuster added 17, Gruber 9 and Dixon and Jaden Champion 7 each. Central did a stout job of defending Falls post Matt Henningsen, who had just 6 points.
"Fouls, fouls, fouls," said Showalter. "If we foul, we can't run and do the things we do well, but we still possibly have a chance at a conference championship, which is our first goal. We just need to fight our way back into the race."
Central, meanwhile, was incredibly balanced, as Nau led five scorers in double figures with 19 points, while Andres Peralta-Werns had 16, Malensek and Post 13 each and Sam Rohde 12.