AUSTIN — Austin boys basketball fans haven't had the opportunity to rush the court this season.
No need. Most of the Packer games — all wins— have been decided long before the final buzzer.
Not Saturday night, when the stakes couldn't have been any higher. The Packers and Winona were playing in a Section One, Class AAA semifinal at a jam-packed Packer gym with the winner heading to Rochester for the section championship on Friday night.
And with the loser going home to stay.
"This,'' said Austin coach Kris Fadness, who after the game looked like he had been put through the wringer, "is what high school basketball is all about.''
Dial back about 20 minutes. when Fadness was drawing up a potential game-winning play with 13.9 seconds remaining and the score tied at 49.
Nowhere did the Austin coach mention getting the ball to junior guard Ajuda Nywesh.
He wanted the ball in Zach Wessels' hands, from which — hopefully — he could work the ball underneath to one of the Packer "bigs,'' most likely Joe Aase.
That didn't work.
Wessels did, indeed, get the inbounds pass and was immediately surrounded by three Winona defenders.
"We only had four team fouls,'' said Winona coach Rocky Peterson, "so we didn't have to worry about sending him to the free-throw line.''
The swarming defense did manage to strip the ball away from the Austin junior who then alertly made the play of the game, and the season. He dove after the loose ball and tipped it toward the Austin basket.
Nywesh was all alone, spotted the ball, turned around, took two steps and scored the game-winning layup.
Never, ever, had he done that in his basketball career.
"I was surprised as anybody,'' Nywesh said. "My first instinct was to go to the ball. I had never scored a game-winning basket before. Anywhere. I guess I picked a good time.''
Yes he did. The 51-49 win sends the unbeaten Packers to the section championship for the second straight year. This time they'll play Red Wing at 6 p.m. Friday at Mayo Civic Arena with eyes on a second straight trip to state.
"Wessels made an athletic, great play to keep us alive,'' said Fadness. "He bailed us out because otherwise they're going to go down and the game is over.''
For Austin fans, it was simply — whew.
A desperation shot by Chance Bechly of Winona bounced off the backboard and the old gymnasium was filled with Packer faithful, all breathing a big sigh of relief.
For Winona, it was a game well played. The Winhawks did everything they wanted to do except win.
"We had a game plan and the kids followed it to near perfection,'' said Peterson. "But we have to shoot better at the line. What where we, 1-of-7? And we lost by two. We just came up short.''
The Packers won their two previous meetings with Winona, 63-38 Jan. 15 at Winona and 61-53 on Feb. 19.
This time, the Winhawks (16-12) came out blazing, canning four first-half 3-pointers and opening an 11-point (21-10) lead midway through the half.
Austin had never trailed by 11 points during the season and seldom trailed at home.
"Everybody kept their composure,'' said senior captain Joe Aase. "There was no need to panic.''
Fadness said it was a tale of two halves.
"We didn't have much of an answer when they attacked us underneath in the first half,'' he said. "Eventually, we got that straightened out but give Winona a lot of credit.''
Winona held a 30-28 halftime lead, but the Packers went on a 6-0 run and took a 34-30 lead.
From the 10-minute mark of the second half, the margin was never more than three points. It was one of those nail-biters with so much riding on each shot.
Aase took — and made — arguably the biggest shot of the game. The Winhawks had a 49-46 lead with 1:30 left when the Austin senior stepped back and canned a 3-pointer with a pair of defenders in his face.
"I knew we were down three, I had an open look and I knew I had to take it,'' Aase said. "It's probably the most nerves I've ever had in a game, but you've got to fight through it.''
"A big-time play,'' said Peterson, "but you expect that from him.''
Aase finished with a game-high 22 points, including six 3-pointers.
"I knew we were going to come back,'' he said. "We had plenty of chances but had a hard time finishing. Zach made the big play. You won't see what he did in the box score, but it was the reason why we won the game.''
Austin will take a 27-0 record into Friday's game against Red Wing (15-13).
On Dec. 21, Austin defeated the Wingers, 64-52.
Red Wing defeated New Prague 73-66 on Saturday night to advance to the Section 1AAA championship. Austin defeated New Prague last year for the section championship.
"We were lucky tonight,'' Fadness said. "We dodged a bullet.''
Austin 51, Winona 49
Chance Bechly 8, Jeffrey Schultz 2, Brandon Gamoke 4, Daniel Schwartz 10, Jayson Ewert 11, William Leaf 11, Hunger Kruse 3, Drew Thompson 0, Steven Scheevel 0.
Other stats: Winona shot 21 of 48 from the field.
Bret Lukes 0, Colin Weisert 5, Zach Wessels 11, Tom Aase 4, Joe Aase 22, Ajuda Nywesh 9, Gach Gach 0.
Other stats: Austin shot 19 of 48 from the field.
Halftime: WIN 30, AUS 28.
Free throws: WIN 1-7, AUS 5-9.
Three-point goals: WIN 6 (Leaf 3, Ewert 3), AUS 8 (Joe Aase 6, Weisert 1, Nywesh 1.