The Ripon High School girls’ basketball team has shown improvement the past couple weeks.

   It had opportunities to beat the second-place teams (Markesan and Wautoma) in the Trailways-West and South Central conferences and stayed with East Central champion Kettle Moraine Lutheran.

   But until last night (Wednesday), the Tigers were unable to get over the hump for a win.

   Ripon, which was the No. 12 seed in its 12-team half-sectional bracket, defeated No. 5-seeded Winneconne 63-58 Wednesday on the road.

   It is just one of two No. 12 seeds in any of the five divisions to record a regional quarterfinal win.

   With the victory, the Tigers (5-18 overall) now will travel Friday to No. 4-seeded Berlin (15-7 overall) for a regional semifinal match-up.

   “It’s nice for the girls, and I was sharing that with them in the locker room afterward,” Ripon head coach Tom McNeill said. “I said, ‘It was great to see all of your hard work that you put in this season pay off for you.’ And I said, ‘This was a team effort.

   Whether you were on the floor or you were on the bench, you did an awesome job in regards to making a contribution; everybody made a contribution tonight — not only from a playing perspective in the game, but at the same time in practice.’”

   He added that the team was focused at the last couple of practices the Tigers had late last week and on Sunday night (they didn’t have practice Monday or Tuesday due to the ice storm that closed school).

   That effort and focus showed early in the game as Ripon took an 11-2 advantage seven minutes in.

   It wasn’t just one player doing the damage either as all five starters scored a basket in that time.

   “For that stretch, we were building a little confidence in ourselves; building a little confidence that we can compete and the hard work that we put in this year was paying off, even for that short period of time,” Tom McNeill said.

   The momentum didn’t last, however, as Winneconne (12-11 overall) answered with a 19-6 run and led by as many as six points before entering halftime up 30-26.

  It then scored five of the first seven points in the second half to take their largest lead of the game.

   While the momentum was no longer on their side, the Tigers did not curl up in a ball and give up.

   Instead, they answered with a 19-4 run of their own to reclaim a 47-39 advantage with around 10 minutes remaining in the game.

   And, once again, it wasn’t just one Ripon player doing the heavy lifting.

   It received five points apiece from Kerstin Sauerbrei, Maria Meincke and Ava Moldenhauer and four points from Olivia Lewis.

   “I think we were starting to realize a little bit that we’re in this game — we’ve got an opportunity to win this,” Tom McNeill said. “I can remember specifically one time when Ava had the ball on the opposite side of the court and she made an entry pass into Olivia. Olivia  took it up strong and ended up following through [for a basket]. It was nice to see us able to put together periods of runs.”

   The Tigers also staved off runs from the Wolves, including one after Ripon took the 47-39 lead.

   Winneconne scored the next six points to make it 47-45 and ended up taking a 56-54 lead with a little more than three minutes remaining.

   Sauerbrei then responded for the Tigers with a 3-pointer from well behind the line. Ripon didn’t relinquish the lead the rest of the way.

   Ripon’s defense helped ensure the victory, preventing Winneconne from making a field goal in the final 3 minutes, 53 seconds — despite giving it three chances on one possession alone in that time.

   Ripon also made six of its final nine free throws to seal the win.

   Free throws were a big factor in the outcome of the game as the Tigers made 20 of 33 attempts, while the Wolves were just 8 of 13.

   Part of the free-throw discrepancy had to due with the aggressiveness of Lewis. The senior shot 20 free throws — 17 of which came in the first 18 minutes of the game.

   She made 11 of them en route to scoring a game-high 23 points.

   “We had the opportunity to utilize her strength, especially down in the low-post area, and we wanted to find a way for her to be aggressive,” Tom McNeill said. “So we had some isolation plays for her.”

   Sauerbrei also impressed the Ripon coach. In addition to scoring 17 points, which included sinking the game-winning 3-pointer and a couple free throws late to make it a two-possession game, the sophomore handled Winneconne’s press.

   “She was very poised with regards to what she was trying to do to bring the ball up the court,” Tom McNeill said of the point guard, adding she also distributed the ball well and hunted her shot. “I shared a little moment with her and I said, ‘You’re going to see that type of defense thrown at you for the next two years; you’re an extremely talented basketball player and other teams are going to recognize that.”

  Moldenhauer also had one of her best games of the season — if not her best game yet.

   The senior, who missed all of last year with an ACL injury suffered playing powderpuff football, finished with nine points.

   “Phenomenal job in regards to her leadership tonight on the court; great decisions when it comes to times when I need to be aggressive and times when I need to pull it out and look for the opportunity to set ourselves up,” Tom McNeill said. “Sometimes it felt like we didn’t get ourselves back into our offense, but her calm presence out on the floor did a great job for us.”

   While there were plenty of bright spots, Tom McNeill noted Ripon still could do a better job of not allowing offensive rebounds and taking care of the basketball.

   When the Tigers did allow Winneconne to go on its runs, it was often a result of those two areas.

   “Those are lost opportunities for us, and I think it’s a learning opportunity for us just to find ways to improve,” Tom McNeill said.

Up next

   Ripon will try to improve upon those areas Friday, when it seeks another upset against rival Berlin.

   Much like Winneconne, the Tigers have lost both of their games this season to the Indians by double digits. They fell 65-41 at home and 55-40 on the road.

   Tom McNeill knows Ripon will need to play its best game to win.

   “Berlin is an extremely talented, extremely well-coached team,” the Ripon head coach said. “They are a tough, aggressive, in-your-face type of opponent and we’re going to have our hands full.”

   Tip off is set for 7 p.m.