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Monroe girls basketball earns state berth
Monroe sophomore Sydney Hilliard goes up for a layup Saturday. Hilliard scored a game-high 24 points and added 11 rebounds and five steals to power the Cheesemakers. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MIDDLETON - This was the challenge facing the Monroe High School girls basketball team on Saturday: Beat a team from the same conference for the third time in one season to punch a ticket to state.

That didn't phase Monroe coach Sam Mathiason, who recalled some helpful words once spoken by John Wooden.

"John Wooden would say if you're the better team, you should kind of like your situation and expect to win the game a third time," Mathiason said of the philosophy of the legendary former UCLA coach, who earned the nickname "The Wizard of Westwood" while he won 10 NCAA national championships.

Monroe sophomore Sydney Hilliard posted a double-double, scoring a game-high 24 points to go along with 11 rebounds and five steals, to help the Cheesemakers roll over Milton 72-49 in a WIAA Division 2 sectional championship game Saturday in Middleton. The Cheesemakers (21-3) recorded their third win of the season over the Red Hawks and advance to the Division 2 state tournament for the first time since 2010.

The Cheesemakers will play top-ranked Beaver Dam (26-0) in a Division 2 state semifinal game at 3:15 p.m. Friday in Green Bay.

"At the beginning of the season, I didn't think anything of it," Hilliard said of the state tournament. "Once we got some big wins, I really thought this could happen. It's really exciting. The big crowd and the student section really helped us out in the second half. We really locked down like we are used to in the second half. I'm just really proud of how we pushed the tempo the whole game."

It was far from a one-player show for the Cheesemakers. Monroe junior Sydney Mathiason added 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and had five blocked shots, and sophomore Emily Benzschawel had 17 points. Senior Jordan Hirsbrunner chipped in eight points.

"It feels really great to win the sectional championship and go to the state tournament in Green Bay," Sydney Mathiason said. "We knew this would be the hardest game. We knew they (Milton) would come out and give us their best game. We knew if we brought our best no matter what they did we would win."

Milton made four of its first five shots. A 3-pointer by senior Emma Martin gave the Red Hawks an early 7-4 lead. Moments later, Milton freshman Abbie Campion drilled a 3-pointer to give the Red Hawks a 13-9 lead with 11 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half. The Cheesemakers weathered the Red Hawks' hot shooting start.

"Milton has been on a pretty good run," Sam Mathiason said. "We knew sometimes it just takes a while to find the flow of the game. We had to just keep sharing the basketball and playing great defense and trust in the process. We just really had to stay true to our principles."

The Cheesemakers remained patient and broke open a tie game by closing the first half on a 25-14 run to take an 11-point lead at the half, 38-27.

Sydney Mathiason gave the Cheesemakers a spark, scoring 13 of her 18 points in the first half.

The Cheesemakers sealed their fate with a 19-9 second-half run that took the wind out of the Red Hawks' sails. Monroe senior Alicia Kuester knocked down a 3-pointer, and the Cheesemakers run was ignited by scoring on the break.

Hirsbrunner and Hilliard each scored on layups a little more than midway through the second half to give the Cheesemakers an insurmountable 57-36 lead. The Cheesemakers' lead continued to snowball from there. Mathiason scored down low, and Hirsbrunner came up with a steal and scored on a layup to give the Cheesemakers a 70-45 lead with 3:26 to go.

Sydney Mathiason stymied Milton senior Bailee Collins in the post. After scoring seven points in the first half, Collins was 0-for-2 from the field in the second half and battled foul trouble after picking up her fourth foul.

"In the second half we really locked it in," Mathiason said. "It really helped that she was in foul trouble."