It’s not the state finals tonight. It’s not even the state tournament yet.

But the gym is going to feel like it.

The Madison East girls basketball team takes on rival Sun Prairie at 7 pm tonight at Madison LaFollette in the WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal. The Purgolders know this is the one they need.

“If we win on Thursday, I don’t feel like we lose again this season,” said junior guard Erin Howard before practice on Tuesday.

“We all believe if we win on Thursday we’re going to state,” said head coach James Adams.

To do it, they’ll have to play almost flawlessly. They’ve only lost five games on the year — two of them to Sun Prairie.

“Sun Prairie has had a hold on us for the last 6 years,” Adams said. But the team knows what they need to do.

“We have to be smarter. We have to be strategic. We’re going to do a lot more containment,” he said. He didn’t want to give away the secret sauce, but clearly the two Cardinals that will need the most containing are Jayda Jensen, who’s pouring in 16.9 points per game, and Alyssa Blair, who’s scoring 10.8.

Justice Filip
Justice Filip

“I think this time we are going to transition better. We have a different game plan for our defense,” said junior guard Justice Filip.

“We can’t rely on shots,” said senior Riley Larson. “We have to actually get to the basket.”

“We just have to bring the intensity. We have to not play one-on-one,” said senior forward Kalea Kruser. “We have to play as a team.”

Kruser said foul trouble played a part in the Purgolders’ 71-66 loss at Sun Prairie in the first game of the season all the way back in November. In the second loss, a 66-57 final at East, Kruser said, “we didn’t play as a team. We played a lot of one-on-one. We kind of deviated from the game plan. We can’t deviate this time.”

Adams has stepped up the preparation this week, installing a scout team to run Sun Prairie’s defense and even bringing in some of the boys’ team to play against his squad.

“That was hard,” said Larson, but necessary.

Adams predicted a close game — which will be unusual for the Cardinals of Sun Prairie.

“I think it’s going to be a close game,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a game where someone is going to get out and run the score up. I know the last 10 or 11 games Sun Prairie has been beating teams by 18 or 20 points. We are not that team. We are not going to get run over.”

Indeed, in their 22 wins so far this season, Sun Prairie’s average margin of victory is just over 21 points. Only East and Madison Memorial have manage to lose by five or less to Sun Prairie. And Sun Prairie’s two playoff wins so far were a 70-29 drubbing of Kenosha Indian Trail and a 65-38 thumping of Muskego.

Riley Larson drives the lane as Erin Howard (23) looks on.
Riley Larson drives the lane as Erin Howard (23) looks on.

But the Purgolders aren’t intimidated.

“Our whole team’s athletic. We can really run up and down the floor. Most teams can’t run with us,” said Howard, who leads East in scoring with 15.9 points per game and rebounds with 11.9.

And then there are the intangibles — chemistry and confidence.

“We’ve been together and playing with each other for years so the continuity is there,” said Filip. “We’re just ready. We think we can beat anyone.”

Adams also noted that the core group of the team has been playing together since sixth and seventh grade on AAU teams and summer high school leagues.

On the other side of the Sectional bracket, also playing tonight, are Middleton and top-seeded Mukwonago. The prospect of a rematch with Middleton on Saturday is not lost on the Purgolders, especially after a Middleton player posted a racially insensitive remark on Instagram following an East win in January – an incident that Adams called “ a learning experience.”

“We know what happened, but we also know we have to put that behind us,” said Howard. “We can’t focus on that.”

“We are just more focused on what is going on right now,” said Kruser. “Yeah, it made an impact, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. (Middleton is) always a team we want to beat. If we see them, it’s going to be a great game.”

But if the Purgolders are going to see Middleton again, they’ve got to get through Sun Prairie first.

Adams said the outcome won’t hinge on any one player, but on many: namely Kruser, Filip, Howard, Larson as well as freshman Kalena Bentley, who will see some time at the point guard.

“If they do what they’re supposed to do, we win the basketball game,” Adams said.

The team is also relying on another intangible: community support.

“I think a lot of people are going to show up,” he said. “I think the east side fans and community and parents are going to come out and support us. Hopefully that gives us the sixth man we’re looking for to get us over the hump.”

And then there’s that last unmeasurable factor: want-to.

“They clearly want to win badder than they’ve ever wanted to win a basketball game,” Adams said. “Clearly there’s a prize at the end of this. But if you lose you’re done. And I don’t think they want to be done.”