Cudahy’s Taylor Gradinjan might have been the happiest injured athlete of all time on Friday night.
The 5-foot-10 senior’s game-winning drive to the basket with 2.9 seconds left gave the Packers a 48-46 victory over visiting Waterford in a WIAA girls regional semifinal matchup. Most impressive, however, was that Gradinjan left the game in the first half with a hyperextended elbow – the same elbow she dislocated last summer.
“We wanted the ball in Taylor’s hands, even when she’s banged up a little bit” Cudahy head coach Adam Stranc said. “She’s a player that makes big time plays. Last year she missed it a game-winner. This year, she wanted the opportunity and she made it.”
For Gradinjan, it was an opportunity at redemption for which she had been waiting.
“Last year, I had a three-point shot at the end with a chance to win the game, and I sort of missed it a little bit,” she said, referring to a playoff loss to Wisconsin Lutheran. “So I was determined to not let that happen again. I wasn’t thinking about that when I had the ball, though. I had it, and I knew I was going to make it.”
The game-winner was a play that moments earlier seemed unnecessary.
Waterford trailed 46-43 with 16 seconds left, but had reliable senior Stephanie Rank at the free-throw line shooting two. Rank hit the first shot, but she intentionally missed the second, grabbed her own rebound and tied the game from underneath the basket.
“It surprised us a little,” Stranc said. “We thought she jumped off the line a little bit early, but that’s not our call. We’ve still got to be a little bit more prepared for that type of situation.”
Gradinjan was caught off guard as well.
“It definitely surprised us,” she said. “We didn’t talk about it as a team or anything. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
Cudahy called timeout after Rank tied the game, and Stranc set up the game-winning play for Gradinjan. Stranc said the Wolverines defended it well, but Gradinjan was able to split multiple defenders and find a way to the basket.
Although the Packers left just 2.9 seconds for the Wolverines, Rank nearly came through with another heroic effort. Rank caught a full-court inbound pass at the free-throw line, turned to dribble and had a decent look to force overtime, but her jumper bounced off the rim as the horn sounded.
Waterford finishes the season 13-10, while Cudahy (19-4) marches on to face undefeated powerhouse New Berlin Eisenhower (23-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday in the regional final.
The Packers lost to Eisenhower on Dec. 20, 64-40.
“We’ve seen them before which is an advantage for us,” Stranc said. “We have to play flawless basketball, but our girls wanted the opportunity, so hopefully they’ll be able to step up to the plate.”
Gradinjan, who scored 16 points in the last contest with Eisenhower, believes the Packers have as good of a chance to knock off the Lions as anyone else.
“I’d do anything to give my teammates the opportunity to get to state this year,” she said. “We’ve got a team that can do it. Last time, we hung with them for most of the game. We just lost it a little bit in the end. We’re just going to go out and play ball. We can do it.”
Emily Wiltzius scored 16 points to lead Cudahy. Gradinjan finished with nine, and Rank had 21 to lead all scorers.
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