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Norskies edge Cheese in familiar script
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DEFOREST - It was almost cruel how the last meaningful sequence of the Monroe boys basketball team's season played out.

Coach Pat Murphy might use another word: Fitting.

The No. 7-seeded Cheesemakers trailed No. 2 DeForest by three points when they took possession with 23 seconds left in Saturday's Division 2 regional semifinal game - not a bad position to be in considering Monroe had connected on 4 of 9 attempts from 3-point range in the second half.

But as Monroe worked to set up for a potential game-tying 3, senior guard Bryce Messerli dribbled the ball off his foot right in front of the Cheesemakers' bench. The same Bryce Messerli who had scored a career-high 16 points and, by all accounts, was in the midst of his finest game in a Monroe uniform.

Sophomore Jake Hirsbrunner did his best to keep the ball in play, but an official said the ball was on the line, giving DeForest possession with 9.8 seconds left. That's all DeForest needed to hold on for a 56-50 victory that sends the Norskies (15-8) into tonight's regional final against Madison Edgewood (17-6).

The fact that it all happened mere inches from Murphy almost made it feel like the basketball gods were intent on sending one last message that this just wasn't the Cheesemakers' year.

"I've seen some different stuff this year, I really have," Murphy said. "You're just hoping in your heart of hearts that you can get a break to go your way.

"For Messi to have probably his best game ... I feel bad that we couldn't make a play at the end there. It's tough to swallow."

The loss closes the book on a difficult 9-15 season, including a 3-9 mark in the Badger South Conference, for a program that has averaged 19 victories per season since the 2003-04 season.

In many ways, junior guard Alex Barenklau said, the season finale was a microcosm of the Cheesemakers' season. They battled hard and outplayed the Norskies at times, but in the end, they couldn't get it done.

"We played a good game overall, but I don't know ... we just haven't been on the good side of it this year," said Barenklau, who scored 13 points.

"We had plenty of chances, just like every game. This team fought and fought, we just weren't able to get over the hump."

Monroe took the fight to the Norskies from the opening tip, taking a 12-5 lead late in the first quarter and leading for almost the entire first half. And when DeForest opened a 34-26 cushion midway through the third quarter?

Paging Mr. Messerli.

The 6-foot-2 guard had a season high of nine points entering the game, and he matched that on three consecutive shots - all 3-pointers - to spark a 13-2 run that gave the Cheesemakers a 39-36 lead after three quarters.

"I hit (3s) all the time in practice, and I just can't bring it into a game sometimes," Messerli said. "I just hit a spark and just kept shooting."

The last of Messerli's 3s came from two feet behind the arc with two Norskies draped all over him. Asked what he was thinking after that shot, Messerli smiled.

"I was thinking keep getting me the ball, I want to keep shooting," he said.

Even after DeForest wisely clamped down on Messerli, the Cheesemakers carried the play. Barenklau scored in the paint 10 seconds into the fourth quarter to push the lead to 41-36, and Joe Latimer's bucket off an offensive rebound gave Monroe a 47-42 lead with 4 minutes, 45 seconds left.

But Latimer's field goal would be the last for Monroe, which shot 3 of 10 in the fourth quarter, and the Norskies asserted themselves late. DeForest hit 8 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter.

"I thought we had some good shots that didn't go in, and they made theirs," said Murphy, who lamented Monroe's 10 of 18 foul shooting.

The coach mentioned each of his six seniors - starting forwards Tyler Barta and Austin Burandt, reserve forwards Kyle Cessna and Alex Dahlk, and backup guards Tai Lu and Messerli - by name.

"They've all brought something to the table," Murphy said. "Kyle and Ty haven't played hardly at all, but their attitude has been good. Barta and Burandt have been our captains and have been steady all year. Dahlk and Messerli have had to fill various roles for different games. They've all been unselfish and showed our young guys how to do things the right way."

Murphy had a message for the players that will return as well.

"I said the line between the average teams and the good and great teams is very fine," Murphy said. "We've got to find a way to get on the good to great line instead of on the average or below average line. It's a play here or there, maybe making a little smarter defensive adjustment, making free throws. We're going to have to do some things in the offseason to get better."