HURLEY - Friday night was all about comebacks.
Hurley's Jared Wendt missed three free throws heading into halftime and later helped forced overtime at the line while ending up with the game of his life. His teammate, Brad Vaara, had a big 3 in the final two minutes after fighting off injuries and a recent shooting slump.
And the biggest comeback of the night:
The No. 2 Midgets came back from a five-point deficit in the final 2:34 of the game to force overtime and beat No. 3 Athens 66-63 in Friday's WIAA Division 4 regional semifinal.
"The toughness, the resolve, the composure this team has shown all year in these kinds of situations," Hurley coach Gary Giancola said. "Twenty down to Solon. Ten down to Bayfield. They're poised in situations they need to be poised. That's a trait that will advance you in the playoffs and it did tonight."
Hurley seeks a second consecutive regional crown today when it travels to No. 1 seed Abbotsford for a 7 p.m. regional final.
"The kids have worked hard all season to be in that game," Giancola said. "They deserve to be in that game. We're going to give everything we've got to Abbotsford to try win that game."
For a brief period late in the fourth quarter, it didn't look like Hurley would take the long ride to Abbotsford today.
With 2:34 to go in the period, Shane Coker kicked it out to Tony Thurs, who hit his fifth 3 of the night to put Athens up 55-50.
On the ensuing possession, Hurley worked and worked for a shot against Athens' tough defense. Brad Vaara collected a pass from inside and knocked down a 3 with 1:40 to go in the game. Athens led by just two, 55-53. The possession lasted 54 seconds.
"I drove in, I saw Sukanen open and then I passed it to him," Vaara said. "I was creeping out on the 3-point line. He seen me, passed it out and I took a step back on the 3-point line and hit it."
Giancola said he told Vaara he would be a big factor in the game with the foul trouble Hurley was in during the tightly called contest. That was despite a tough first half, and really season, for Vaara, who has battled injuries.
"The patience we showed on that possession, that was the possession of the year," Giancola said. "We took a minute off the clock. A lot of times you're going to panic, down five, force a quick one, jack up a shot, time's running out.
"A 3, he could have taken at any time, but we take a minute off the clock and we get the 3 on the ball reversal. Brad steps into it, in rhythm and boom. Such a big shot for us and to come down and get the stops we did."
Athens later took away with a lot of time itself with Collin Ellenbecker getting to the foul line with 34.8 seconds. He split the free throws for a 56-53 lead.
Hurley's Jake Colassaco made both of his free throws with 14.8 seconds left to pull Hurley within one.
Athens' Austin Schreiner got loose on the inbounds pass and James Sukanen tracked him down in the corner to foul him with 12.5 seconds left. With the energetic Hurley crowd louder than ever, he missed them both.
Giancola didn't want Ellenbecker or Coker getting the ball in that situation.
"We wanted (Schreiner) to get the ball," Giancola said. "We said in the timeout, if 11 goes, let him go into the corner and get it and then pounce on him. We wanted him at the line. I thought it was key they played into our hands and they got it to him."
Hurley didn't call timeout because it didn't want to give Athens a chance to set up its defense. Wendt took the ball downcourt. He made a move towards the inside and passed to Colassaco. Athens was called for a foul on Wendt with five seconds on the clock.
He made both free throws and just like that Hurley was leading 57-56.
"I knew I couldn't miss after missing those three," Wendt said, referring to his misses at the halftime buzzer. "That really put a damper on the mood at the end of the half. I just kept my head and just put them in."
After a timeout, Athens inbounded and got it to Coker inside. The Midgets didn't get Mark Saari back in the game to guard him and Coker ended up with a big mismatch in his favor. A foul was called with .6 second on the clock. A big sense of relief came throughout the crowd when he missed the first one. He made the second though to tie it at 57-57.
Jake Tenlen actually got a three-quarters court 3 off that hit the rim, but the game went to overtime.
James Sukanen, who had a nice game after halftime, scored underneath to give Hurley the first lead, 59-57. The Midgets never lost the lead. Thurs lost his touch from behind the arc. Ellenbecker missed one badly.
Sukanen's putback with 1:36 left put the Midgets ahead 61-57.
Later, Ellenbecker missed two free throws with 46.1 seconds and Wendt made both of his one second later to put Hurley up 64-59.
Athens got it down to one possession on a basket by Coker. But there was Wendt again for a layup for the 66-61 advantage.
Athens scored with 2.2 seconds left, but the Bluejays couldn't foul before the clock ran out.
The Midgets knew they could come back.
"We knew we had the heart and we knew we had the talent to pull it off," Saari said. "We just had to go out and do it. We knew it'd work out."
"We did exactly what we needed to do except shoot free throws," Athens coach John Schreiner said. "We had the game won. We let it slip through our fingers. We're a better free throw shooting team than that (65-69 percent on the year). It could have been the crowd. It could have been nerves. If we would have been the No. 2 seed, they would have come to us.
"Hat's off to Hurley for coming back. No. 24, he played a heck of a game. He was a difference maker on their team. We felt we need to take 22 (Colassaco) out of the game."
It really was Wendt's night; he's No. 24. He had a game-high 23 points and he led Hurley with 12 rebounds.
"We just told him at halftime to keep his head up and we'll get them back," Colassaco said. "He played excellent down the stretch. He made huge, huge free throws. He really stepped up for us and did an amazing job. It was his time to shine and he definitely did that."
Giancola was impressed with his performance, especially making those free throws after watching him brick the three before the half. Wendt made 9 of his 10 free throws after missing those three, attacking the basket and getting to the line.
"They weren't even close," Giancola said. "The whole season's on the line and he comes back and showed a lot of mental toughness by blocking that out and continuing to play. He's that kind of a kid. He can play through those things as far as letting it go and continuing to play.
Vaara's teammates were happy to see him hit the big shot, also.
"No one's been more unlucky than Brad," Saari said. "He's had more injuries over the years. I'm happy for him. It's what he can do and he's doing it."
Thurs led Athens with 19 points. Coker scored 15.
Sukanen had 17 points and 11 boards. Colassaco scored 14 points while being the focus of the Athens' defense. Giancola said he smartly didn't force shots in that situation.
"Everybody contributed and would not be denied," Giancola said. "They weren't going to lose at home.
"Hopefully we can get another regional and advance to the sectional. That's what these guys have talked about all year."
Athens - Collin Ellenbecker 10, Austin Schreiner 5, Lane Tessmer 9, Justin Kelly 3, Shane Coker 15, Aaron Wickman 2, Anthony Thurs 19. FTs: 16-32. Fouls: 23. Fouled out: Thurs. 3-pointers: Thurs 5, Kelly 1, Schreiner 1.
Hurley - Brad Vaara 3, Mitchell Maki 6, Jake Colassaco 14, Jared Wendt 23, James Sukanen 17, Mark Saari 5. FTs: 19-30. Fouls: 23. Fouled out: Maki, Saari. 3-pointers: Maki 2, Vaara 1.
Athens 13 26 41 57 63
Hurley 13 28 42 57 66