The Memorial Spartans huddle just before tip-off Saturday night at the Kohl Center.
Moments after his team claimed the 2009 WIAA Division I boys basketball championship in a 56-41 victor over Racine Horlick Saturday night, Madison Memorial junior Vander Blue stood on the Kohl Center floor sobbing, his face buried in his green jersey.
"I grew up with all these guys and it's tough, me being the youngest, that I can't graduate with them and now I'll probably never play in the same game with them," he said. "It's a great feeling to win a state championship and to win it with the people that you love. That's why I feel so emotional."
Blue, along with senior Jeronne Maymon who was named the state's Mr. Basketball earlier Saturday, came within two points of beating Wauwatosa East in an overtime thriller for the title a year ago. It was clear within minutes of the end of that game that the returning players wanted nothing less than a title.
"When Jeronne says we're going to win a state title, it's pretty obvious what's out there," said Memorial coach Steve Collins, who has led his teams to six straight state tournaments, winning the title in 2005.
But Maymon's announcement wasn't the only factor fueling great expectations for Collins' team. Along with Blue and Maymon, guards Tre Creamer and Xavier Jones had plenty of experience in the tournament run of a year ago and Junior Lomomba, a freshman phenom, filled out the most talented roster in the state. Maymon will play at Marquette next year and Blue has verbally committed to Wisconsin in 2010. Lomomba and Creamer are both expected to receive scholarship offers as well.
While that roster was tested severely in a semi-final overtime victory over Bay Port Friday night, Horlick never managed to make much of a game of it Saturday night. Superstar forward Jamil Wilson, who will play hoops at Oregon next year, got into foul trouble early, tallying four before half. And Memorial's half-court trapping defense coupled with a relentless, attacking offense led to a 15-5 score after one quarter. Lomomba drew the job of guarding Wilson and never let the senior get comfortable.
"We decided that we weren't going to pull the ball out if we got a 15 point lead to take time off the clock," said Collins. "That kind of got us the mentality that we were going to keep coming for the full 32 minutes."
With the title, Memorial is making a case for inclusion among the most successful high school basketball programs in state history. The Spartans have been to the state tournament six years straight, winning in 2005 and finishing runners-up in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Former Spartans Michael Nelson, Wesley Matthews and Keaton Nankivil, all of whom were named the state's Mr. Basketball their senior seasons, competed with their college teams in the NCAA tournament this week.
And with Blue, Creamer and Lomomba all returning next year, Memorial is already the team to watch in 2009-2010.
"I talked about it in the locker room right after the game," said Collins. "Tre had the flu today. He had to go to the hospital and I said, 'You had a heck of a game today being sick, but you'll have your chance because we're coming back.' With kids, you always have to plant the seed."