Marquette University High School had 10 seniors on its state-championship basketball team, which won its final 12 games of the season. (Submitted photo)

Despite having 10 seniors returning this season, despite reaching the sectional final in 2023 and despite having a returning all-state player, there were still some lessons Marquette University High School’s boys basketball team needed to learn before they achieved their dream.

Some of those lessons were learned in March 2023 in Manitowoc.

Some of them were learned in December, when they lost three of four games in a short span of time.

Some of them were learned during their final loss of the season in early February.

Those lessons took hold, and the Hilltoppers rolled to their first WIAA state championship March 16 in Madison with an 84-62 victory over Arrowhead to cap a 26-4 season. It was the school’s first basketball state championship since 1999, when MUHS was still part of WISAA, a private-school organization that merged with the WIAA.

“You knew the work all season had paid off,” said MUHS coach Casey Kowalewski. “It was certainly a journey. In order for us to get where we got, we talked about all year that we’re only as good as the group together. The times where we had our hiccups, we weren’t gelling, we weren’t cohesive, we weren’t making that extra pass and playing together. You saw a change in these guys once they got into the playoffs.”

The final lesson perhaps came Feb. 3, when the Hilltoppers lost 65-64 to that same Arrowhead team. The kicker? MUHS had the ball and the lead with 2.2 seconds left, but a couple of mistakes allowed the Warhawks to score at the buzzer and sneak out with the win.

“There was an opportunity there where you can learn from those moments and understand that details matter, the little things matter,” Kowalewski said. “Everybody being on the same page matters.”

From that point on, the Hilltoppers won their final 12 games, by an average of 25.1 points per game.

“Arrowhead’s a great team, a great program,” Kowalewski said. “We play them every year for a reason. It’s a good litmus for where do you stand talentwise and what works against them, what doesn’t work against them.”

The lesson about sharing the ball paid dividends in the first half of the championship game — five different Hilltoppers combined to drain seven 3-pointers as MUHS went into intermission with a 41-32 advantage.

“To share the ball and distribute the ball that way, they started to realize that everything gets easier for one another the more they work together,” Kowalewski said.

TJ Adams buried a 3-ball a minute and a half into the second half, pushing MUHS’ edge to double figures. The Warhawks wouldn’t cut the lead to single digits the rest of the way.

“When you’re at the state level, you expect you’re gonna be in for it no matter what,” Kowalewski said. “All of those teams are outstanding. Did I expect a 20-point win? No, not at all.”

Once they got the cushion, the Hilltoppers had to apply one last lesson to get to the finish line. Kowalewski noted that there were times when the Hilltoppers’ high-octane offense allowed them to jump out to big leads, only to see opponents claw their way back into the contest.

“You’re always bracing yourself for that run, so what was great about the group is we knew we wanted to play fast and we knew (Arrowhead was) in a four-overtime game the night before,” Kowalewski said. “You want to keep it moving. We know that’s a strength for us, so let’s keep playing to our strength; let’s play fast. You can’t have that letup — don’t let them have their run.”

All-stater Nolan Minessale led MUHS with 29 points on 11-16 shooting and was joined in double figures by Jeremiah Johnson (14 points) and Cade Kohnen (10 points).

As the final minutes ticked off the clock late in the second half, Kowalewski couldn’t help noticing his seniors sitting on the bench, soaking in the scene and sharing in the excitement of seeing all of their teammates get some playing time on statewide television.

“That’s the end goal for every team and every program,” Kowalewski said. “While the winning part for a school and from a coaching standpoint is great, (so is) just the experience that these guys were able to have together. I look at that as being the most rewarding piece — (that) and seeing them with one another after the game or in the waning moments of the game.”

It was a tight-knit group that went on the journey together and shared the highs and lows together.

“They’re so proud of each other,” Kowalewski said.