Back-to-back champs: Kettle Moraine girls win second consecutive state title - 01

The 2023 state champion Kettle Moraine girls basketball team celebrates with fans.

ASHWAUBENON — Grace Grocholski added yet another feather to her cap.

That’s assuming there was any more room for one.

The Kettle Moraine senior forward scored a game-high 24 points in a game where points were difficult to come by, leading the Lasers to their second consecutive WIAA Division 1 state championship with a 47-40 victory over Brookfield East Saturday at the Resch Center.

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It brought a fitting end to one of the best athletic careers the county has ever seen. Not only did Grocholski help KM become the first area girls basketball team to win back-to-back state titles, but she also visited the Resch Center three more times in volleyball during her incomparable four-year high-school career.

"It means everything," Grocholski said. "Some people don’t even get out of regionals, and I’ve been here five times. I’m extremely lucky to be able to."

It’s easy to have that perspective when you’re at the top, but Grocholski and senior teammate Braelyn Torres, who is second only to Grocholski on the program’s all-time scoring list, more than earned it.

"Just so proud of everybody, especially these two," KM coach Todd Hansen said. "These two wanted to get back and they wanted another ball. They wanted another ring and tonight, just tremendous. ‘G’ led us in scoring but Braelyn almost had a triple-double and just so proud of everybody."

Chants of "G-money" rang out from the KM student section as it had the privilege of watching one more masterful performance by the West Virginia recruit. But perhaps even more valuable than her offensive output was what she did on the defensive end against another area standout.

Senior guard Annika Pluemer, who made a go-ahead 3 to lift East past Germantown the night prior, was held to just four points with Grocholski as her primary defender.

"I’ve had a bunch of match-ups with her in the past through AAU and high school," Grocholski said of the Maryville recruit. "I think the key was just running her off the 3-point line and trying to read her when she drives, and I think I did that. But she’s a really tough player."

Pluemer has buttered her bread from beyond the arc throughout a highschool career that resulted in becoming the Spartans’ all-time leading scorer. But she was limited to only two shot attempts from 3 and 2-of-9 shooting overall.

"Grace is sneaky. She’s quicker than she seems," East coach Tyler Saxton said. "She was able to keep in front of Anna. We tried to run her off some of our sets, but to their credit they fought through screens really well. It was tough for her to shake open. There were a couple times I thought she could’ve taken a shot, maybe been a little bit more aggressive. But Grace did a nice job."

That meant someone else would have to step up as the Spartans’ go-to scorer, and junior guard Shae Kelley, the team’s defensive stopper, was up to the task. She scored a team-high 18 points to go along with five steals while matched up with Torres.

"It was definitely super fun," Kelley said. "It kind of brought me back to my old Impact (AAU) days. She was always a year older than me on the other team and our team would always go up against them in practice and she was always super good. I mean, she obviously still is."

Hansen tipped his cap to Kelley, as hardly any of her 18 points came easy.

In fact, hardly any points came easy. KM would wind up shooting 41.2% from the field and turned it over 14 times. But the Lasers (28-1), seeded third, were able to beat the top-seeded Spartans (27-3) at their own game, limiting them to just 28.3% shooting from the field.

“We knew we were going to have to win on the defensive end because they don’t give up a lot of points,” Hansen said. “We played a great team. They were so good defensively, and we matched that tonight.”

The Lasers never trailed, opening the game on an 8-0 run. Junior forward Briana Binagi, who like Grocholski and Torres played all 36 minutes, finishing with seven points and nine boards, made a layup with 15 minutes, 52 seconds left until halftime before Grocholski buried back-to-back 3s.

“You’re like, OK, great. Maybe if we can get this up to double digits, maybe we can put a lot of pressure on them,” Hansen said.

That wouldn’t happen until a 3 by Torres made it 28-18 with 15:05 remaining in regulation. In the meantime, East was able to trim the deficit to two multiple times, including when Kelley’s put-back made it 14-12. But from there the Lasers closed the half on an 11-5 run as Grocholski found room near the top of East’s unrelenting 2-3 zone and knocked down a jumper to make it 25-17 at halftime.

“In zones Grace plays inside-outside and she felt more comfortable inside tonight and then flashing back outside,” Hansen said. “Early on, I didn’t think we had real good movement in our zone. But we tweaked a couple things at halftime and we got a couple of almostbackdoor plays on it.

“Grace found a lot of openings and hit some big shots and that’s what big-time players do.”

Still, there were some nervy moments in the second half.

Pluemer scored her first points with 11:52 remaining to pull East within 2824. Freshman guard Maya Kovacic, who led the Spartans with 21 points against Germantown, didn’t score until the 9:12 mark when a pair of free throws made it 32-26. The KM lead fluctuated between five and nine the rest of the way, as the Lasers went an uncharacteristic 13-of-24 from the charity stripe and the Spartans dealt with foul trouble.

“If you would’ve told me going in that we were going to hold KM to 47, I’d say I like our chances,” Saxton said. “We didn’t shoot it very well. We didn’t get some of the looks we wanted to. They played pretty good defense. When you get three of your starters with four fouls and two of them pretty early on, it puts you in a tough spot.”

But the Spartans wouldn’t make it easy on their Waukesha County foes. Kelley made a 3 after stealing an inbound pass to trim the KM lead to 4540 with 16 seconds left, but Torres was able to go 2-for-2 at the line on the other end to finally put East away.

Now the Lasers are hanging a third banner, joining those from 1999 and 2022.

“It just makes me realize that all this hard work was not for nothing,” said Torres, who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks. “The feeling is just so overwhelming. I didn’t think we were gonna come back here again, but I really wanted this year.”

East was pretty confident it would be back in Green Bay after returning its heavy hitters from last season’s statesemifinalist team. While the ball it brings home isn’t gold, it matched the best finish in program history, as the Spartans were also runner-up in 1984.

“To me, it means a lot,” Saxton said. “It’s a huge accomplishment to get a ball, whether it’s gold or silver. It’s kind of a statement — we’re here. The junior girls that are watching and the youth kids, that’s a huge statement. It’s an expectation now. It’s not just a dream.”

Kelley and Kovacic, among others, will be back for an East team that figures to have high expectations once again next season even without Pluemer and senior forward Maddy McGath in the mix.

“I think it’s definitely something to be super proud of,” Kelley said. “We just tried to prove to everybody what we could do and I think we accomplished most of that this year.”

It was another dream realized for Kettle Moraine after losing five of its top seven players from last year’s championship squad. But those two that returned happened to be Grocholski and Torres, a luxury that isn’t lost on Hansen.

“If we can have another year of eligibility, I’ll definitely take them back,” Hansen quipped.

“We got two gold balls and I’m beyond blessed to be able to coach these girls.”

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