Keshawn Justice was just a toddler the most recent time Madison Memorial didn’t win or share the Big Eight Conference boys basketball championship.
And should the Spartans’ run of 14 consecutive titles come to an end this season, Justice will have played a significant role.
Justice, a 6-foot-6 senior, scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead Madison East to a 70-63 victory Friday night at Memorial.
The loss knocks the Spartans (14-4, 11-3 Big Eight) two games behind Sun Prairie with four games remaining.
Justice didn’t need anyone to explain the significance of the victory for the Purgolders (10-6, 8-5) as he felt a mix of joy for his team — and respect for the opponent.
“Beating Memorial is always a good feeling because they have a great coach there,” Justice said. “Props to coach (Steve) Collins for keeping his team moving every year with the talent they’ve got. He’s always got them going every year, so this is big for us.”
While the Spartans are not mathematically eliminated, Collins is realistic about his team’s prospects for extending its remarkable streak.
“I told the boys that chapter is probably closed at this point,” Collins said. “That’s fine. Every streak is meant to end at some point.
“We’re just going to worry about getting better tomorrow. Hopefully we can compete against Sun Prairie on Thursday.”
With just a few moments to reflect, Collins allowed that the run seems even more impressive as it is on the verge of ending.
“I’m not sure that’s going to get broken,” he said. “Fourteen in any conference is a lot. It’s a lot of kids, a lot of sweat and tears. It might be harder than winning a state title in many respects because it’s so many years and so many kids.”
The Spartans found themselves in an uphill battle all night Friday as the Purgolders jumped out to an 11-2 lead and never surrendered it.
“We came out fired up,” said East coach Matt Miota, whose team avenged a 48-46 loss to Memorial early this season. “We came out with some intensity and some toughness. And we knocked down some shots. We were confident shooting it and it showed.”
The Spartans made several runs but each time the Purgolders had the answer.
Junior Nick Caropreso scored 13 of his team-high 21 points in the first half, including eight straight points as the Spartans pulled to within 26-22 late in the half.
But East responded and closed out the half on an 11-5 run to stretch the lead to 37-27. Justice accounted for six of those points for East.
“He’s so tall and he can do so many things,” Collins said of Justice, a Santa Clara recruit. “He can take over. He was able to score at will over our guys.”
Often as not, it was Justice who came up with a big play every time Memorial put together a run in the second half.
“Keshawn is a special player,” Miota said. “He’s been playing on this level for four years and he understands what it takes in this conference to get a W on the road. He stepped up.”
He also had plenty of help, particularly from senior Earl Lewis with 18 points and junior Damontae Thompson with 14.
“Shout out to my teammates,” Justice said. “They brought it tonight and opened up a lot of things for me. That’s what’s so good about us, we’ve got weapons everywhere.”
Thompson hit five of six free throws in the last two minutes to help stave off the final Memorial charge. The Spartans were able to get within 66-63 on a jumper from senior Elliott Grays with 28 seconds left.
But the Purgolders salted it away with four free throws in the final 26 seconds to extend their winning streak to four games.
“It’s a good win for us,” Miota said. “The last time we played them I didn’t think we played particularly well. That was early in the season and I think our kids have grown. We’re really starting to get where we need to be.”
Madison East 37 33 — 70
Madison Memorial 27 36 — 63
MADISON EAST — Justice 6 8-12 21, Washington 0 1-2 1, Lewis 7 1-2 18, Mielke 2 0-0 4, Thompson 3 7-8 14, Washington 2 1-3 6, Jones 3 0-1 6. Totals 23 18-28 70.
MADISON MEMORIAL — Brown 3 0-0 7, Krumbach 1 1-2 3, Grays 2 0-0 4, Ellingson 3 5-6 11, Caropreso 9 0-3 21, Schaefer 1 0-0 3, Traore 2 0-0 4, Caldwell 1 2-4 4, Howard 3 0-0 6. Totals 25 8-16 63.
3-point goals — ME 6 (Lewis 3, Justice 1, Thompson 1, Washington 1), MM 5 (Caropreso 3, Brown 1, Schaefer 1). Total fouls — ME 15, MM 18. Fouled out — Jones.