For most of the first half on Friday night, West Allis Central sophomore guard Brandon Key was definitely out of his comfort zone.
Central was playing against defensive-minded, methodical Oak Creek in a WIAA Division 1 regional semifinal game, and the slow pace - as indicated by the 16-12 halftime lead for the Knights - was not to his liking.
"I'm used to a faster tempo," Key said, "and we started off slowly. The tempo was too slow for me, I like playing fast, and I had to adjust."
Central head coach David Mlachnik had a few words with Key at halftime.
"He was kind of frustrated in that first half," Mlachnik said. "I told Brandon at half, 'This is a game where you have to be mentally tough. Be patient; understand that you're not going to get a lot of touches, you're not going to get a lot of opportunities.
"Don't try to do too much; just let the game come to you.'"
Key took his advice to heart, then took over the game, scoring 15 second-half points and the game-winning basket with seven seconds remaining to lead the Bulldogs to a 34-33 victory.
Central improved to 10-13 and will face top seed Milwaukee Hamilton in a regional championship contest at 7 p.m. Saturday. Oak Creek finished its season at 12-11.
Starting in the opening minutes of the third quarter, Key began to drive the lane, either looking for a shot or passing back out to set up teammates for opportunities.
Early in the period, he drove, turned and hit Jequan Carson with a pass, and Carson netted a 3-pointer from the corner to bring Central within 16-15.
Carson then connected from the lane to put the Bulldogs on top, but Oak Creek's Terrence Garner, who started his career at Central, connected on a 3-pointer of his own for a 19-17 lead.
Central went ahead 20-19 on a free throw off a driving shot by Key, then Alex Medenwaldt nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Knights a 22-20 advantage.
Key kept up his relentless driving to score 12 points in the fourth quarter, including Central's final nine.
He opened the period by stealing the ball near midcourt and driving to the basket for a layup and three-point play, giving the Bulldogs a 23-22 lead.
Another driving shot made it 27-24, but Garner tied it when he hit a trey with just under four minutes left.
Back-to-back baskets by Medenwaldt put the Knights up 31-29 with two minutes left, but Key drove for another three-point play as Central went ahead 32-31 with 1 minute, 10 seconds left.
Oak Creek ran down the clock and Medenwaldt connected on two free throws with 18.6 seconds remaining.
Key, though, had one more answer, driving the middle of the lane through the defense and banking in a shot with 7.1 seconds left for a 34-33 lead.
"We knew he was a special player," Oak Creek head coach Mike Jossie said, "and he made a tough shot. Big-time players make big-time plays; he's a big-time player and he made that play. It was well-defended and a tough banked-in floater." The two teams exchanged turnovers, giving the Knights one last shot, but a 3-pointer from Harrison Cleary hit the back rim as the buzzer sounded.
Key finished with 15 points, while Medenwaldt led the Knights with 16.
Mlachnik praised the gritty Knights for their effort, saying, "They do a great job defensively, and they run their offense. It makes it tough on an offense. Coach Jossie does a great job with those guys. It was a grind-it-out type of game, and when you get in the playoffs, you have to be able to grind it out and do the little things down the stretch. We were fortunate enough to pull it off."
Jossie, who started his coaching career at Central, said, "You've got to give credit to them. I'm sure they were kind of frustrated with only 12 points in the first half; that was our kind of game.
"I wish them the best of luck. I'm just sad that I don't get to see these kids (Saturday) morning like we planned. I don't get to coach Terrence anymore, but I'll be with him, along with those other seniors."
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