MADISON – Hillsboro certainly didn’t play like a first-timer in the program’s very first trip to the WIAA boys' basketball state tournament.
The Tigers held a two-point halftime lead over Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran — an experienced program making its fifth appearance since 2010 and third straight — then showed the poise to rally from an eight-point deficit to pull out a 59–57 victory in Thursday’s WIAA Division 5 state semifinal.
Four players scored in double figures led by 17 points from junior 1,000-point scorer Max Stockwell as the Tigers
Hillsboro improved to 23–6 with its 11th straight victory and advanced to face Young Coggs Prep from Milwaukee in Saturday’s D5 championship game.
N.E.W. Lutheran finished the season 16–12.
“The celebration was awesome,” said first-year Hillsboro coach Curt Hildreth. “We knew we had advanced to the finals and we knew we were going to bring home a ball no matter what. But we just stayed with the process that had gotten us there and really focused on being ready to play our best on Saturday.”
Stockwell scored 13 points in the first half as the Tigers built a 31–26 lead when fellow junior Tommy Crandall hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left in the half.
N.E.W. Lutheran’s Nathaniel Schaefer answered with a triple of his own in the final seconds of the half to make it a two-point game at intermission.
The Blazers stole the momentum and the lead with an 16–4 run early in the third quarter to build a 45–37 lead with 2:17 left in the quarter on a 3-pointer by Tanner Natzke.
Needing to halt N.E.W.’s surge, Hildreth turned to 6-foot-8 senior Avery Rueckheim.
Rueckheim joined the 6-foot-5 Stockwell and 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior Hunter Stanek as Hillsboro went big in favor of its usual three-guard lineup.
“They had all the momentum and an eight-point lead so we decided to go big and put Avery on their point guard (Schaefer),” said Hildreth. “Even though Avery wasn’t quicker than him, he did a good job playing off him and using his length to affect his shot and keep him out of the lane.
Schaefer, who led the Blazers with 14 points and three assists, only scored four points over the final 11 minutes.
“On offense we starting going inside,” added Hildreth. “We weren’t getting the inside touches like we needed, but once we did that we got a few easy baskets and that opened up the outside.
Hildreth’s switch to the bigger lineup sparked a 22–12 run over the final 10:04 as the Tigers pulled in front and held on for the two-point win.
Rueckheim hit a short jumper with 2:04 left in the third, then Stanek scored inside while being fouled, and converted the three-point play to make it 47–42 with 1:13 left in the quarter.
Rueckheim then took a pass from Stanek for a layup with 34 seconds left cutting margin to three.
Junior point guard Joey Helgerson opened the fourth quarter with a steal and a pull-up jumper to bring Hillsboro within a point.
Stanek scored a layup on a feed from Stockwell, then Helgerson hit another 12-foot jumper two give the Tigers a 50–49 lead with 5:17 left in the game.
Stanek made 4 of 6 free throws on Hillsboro’s next three offensive possessions, Stockwell scored a layup, and
Helgerson made another pull-up jumper to make it 58–52 with 2:06 to play.
The Tigers left the door open for N.E.W. Lutheran as Helgerson twice missed the front end of the bonus.
The Blazers pulled within a point at 58–57 with 23 seconds left on a Noah Gosse jumper.
Tommy Crandall made 1 of 2 from the line with 18 seconds left and Schaefer’s force 3-pointer at the buzzer drew nothing but as Hillsboro escaped.
“We got the lead and we were getting fouled, we just weren’t knocking down our free throws,” said Hildreth. “It was closer than it needed to be, but it was a gutty performance by our kids.”
Stockwell finished with 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Stanek had 12 points and three rebounds. Rueckheim added 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting and three boards. Helgerson finished with 10 points and three rebounds.