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A big game on a big stage
Monroe junior Sydney Hilliard goes up for a layup against Monona Grove at Monroe High School Feb. 6. Monroe won 74-60. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - All eyes were on juniors Sydney Hilliard of Monroe and McKenna Warnock of Monona Grove. University of Wisconsin women's basketball coach Jonathan Tsipis and Marquette coach Carolyn Kieger were in attendance along with a college basketball recruiter from Colorado, as both players have received multiple scholarship offers to play at the next level.

The showdown between the Cheesemakers and Silver Eagles didn't disappoint. Hilliard scored a team-high 27 points and had seven rebounds to lead Monroe to a 74-60 win over Monona Grove Tuesday.

Warnock scored a game-high 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, but it came on a whopping 35 shots. Warnock, who has offers from 52 Division 1 college schools, finished 12-for-35 shooting (34.2 percent). With the win, Monroe (18-2, 12-0 Badger South) won the conference title outright and it marks the second straight title for the Cheesemakers, who shared the crown with Stoughton and Madison Edgewood last year.

"It's an amazing feeling knowing we won it outright," said junior Emily Benzschawel who scored all 18 of her points in the second half, had three steals and two blocked shots. "Last year we had to share it. Winning it outright and having it all to ourselves is great."

The Cheesemakers, ranked No. 4 in the Division 2 Associated Press state poll, used a height advantage down low to knock off the Silver Eagles. Monroe had four players in double figures. Monroe freshman Megan Benzschawel added 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while sophomore Grace Tostrud had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds while knocking down three 3-pointers.

"We had contributions from a lot of different places," Monroe coach Sam Mathiason said. "When you have that kind of balance it makes you tougher to defend."

Both Hilliard and Warnock have received scholarship offers from Wisconsin and Marquette among other schools. Hilliard is excited to get the win against the Silver Eagles and to repeat as conference champions.

"It's awesome," Hilliard said of repeating as Badger South champions. "I'm grateful for it. We don't want to start thinking we are better than everybody else."

The Cheesemakers have two more conference games before the regional tournament begins.

Warnock scored down low to cut the Cheesemakers' lead to 63-57 with about 4 minutes to go in the second half. The Cheesemakers responded with Emily Benzschawel scoring on a layup. She then came up with a steal and scored on another layup to extend Monroe's lead to 67-57 with 3:16 to go.

"It definitely gave me some confidence," Benzschawel said of her first steal and layup that came earlier in the second half. "They were playing great defense. Once I got that first steal and basket, I got my groove after that."

Warnock picked up her third foul less than 2 minutes into the second half with the Cheesemakers leading by five points. She was on the bench for just a couple of minutes and when she returned the Silver Eagles had cut the Cheesemakers' lead to three points, 40-37. After making 44 percent of her shots in the first half, Warnock shot just 4 of 17 in the second half.

"When she (Warnock) got in foul trouble it helped us because she had to back off a little bit," Hilliard said. "I knew she would make shots. I thought we did a pretty good job against her."

The Cheesemakers used senior Rachel Meier and Megan Benzschawel to guard Warnock.

"We just tried to mix it up a little bit to make it tough on her touches and when she was coming in on those drives we wanted extra help coming in and good team defense."

Early on, the game had the makings of one that would come down to the wire. The Cheesemakers were just 1 of 8 shooting in the first 2 minutes, 30 seconds and trailed the Silver Eagles 7-2. Warnock drilled a 3-pointer to give the Silver Eagles a 12-6 lead with 11:08 left in the first half.

The Cheesemakers answered with a 19-5 run. Tostrud made two of her three 3-pointers during the surge. Hilliard also converted a conventional three-point play to give Monroe a 25-17 lead with 5:39 left in the first half.

The Silver Eagles came roaring back. Warnock knocked down a jumper and buried a 3-pointer to slice the Cheesemakers' lead to 25-21. Warnock then sank another jumper to cut Monroe's lead to 25-23 with 2:39 to go in the first half. The Cheesemakers closed strong with Hilliard scoring on a layup that made it 31-28 at the break.

That set the stage for the second half.

"Grace (Tostrud) hit three 3-pointers in the first half," Mathiason said. "Megan (Benzschawel) got some offensive rebounds and post touches and converted on them. It's just taking advantage of the opportunities. You never know when your opportunities will come."