Wildcat girls create own March madness
River Falls' girls' basketball coach Kyle Igou had a simple explanation for how the ninth-seeded Wildcats came within one game of becoming the first team from River Falls to reach the WIAA State Girls Basketball Tournament.
"The girls stepped up and did some wonderful things," he said. "Everybody came together."
After finishing the regular season with a record of 10-11 and receiving the No. 9 seed in the 16-team sectional bracket, the Cats went on to win three straight games on the road against higher seeds. They started their run by defeating No. 8 Merrill, 45-37, in a regional semifinal March 9, then knocked off top-seeded and once-beaten Menomonie, 53-43, in the regional championship game March 13.
They continued their run by coming from behind to beat fourth-seeded Eau Claire North, 43-40, Friday night in a sectional semifinal in Wausau, leaving them as one of 16 teams remaining in the state vying for a berth in the eight-team state tournament field, and the only team to win three straight road games to get there.
"Some people say we weren't expected to go that far," Igou said. "But it's what we expected."
The Cats' magical run finally ended in Saturday night's sectional final when third-seeded Wausau West pulled away for a 58-42 victory on their home court.
Igou said he knew going into the playoffs that the Wildcats were better than their 10-11 record and fifth place finish in the Big Rivers Conference indicated.
"I think anyone who believes we had a mediocre season is basing that on wins and losses. But I think the program took a great step this year, even before the playoff run," he said. "We played 21 games, and in only two of those games were we out of it in the fourth quarter. Only twice were we out of games in the last three minutes. Our program took a huge step; the playoff run was even a bigger step."
After beating Menomonie in the regional final, Igou said the team firmly set its sights on defeating Eau Claire North, who the Cats hadn't beaten in over ten years. They trailed by four with just under three minutes remaining, but outscored the Huskies by seven down the stretch to pull out the three-point win.
Igou said that game was just one example of the poise the team displayed during its playoff run.
"We didn't panic when we gave Menomonie an 11-0 start; we went and outscored them 21-8 after that," he said. "We didn't panic when we were down four with 2:48 left against North; we went and outscored them by seven in the last 2:48. The character of the girls was unbelievable. The learned to stay poised and under control and get after it."
Senior Tessa Wells, who will play at Winona State next year, led the Wildcats in their win over North with 20 points, including ten in the fourth quarter to spark the Cats' comeback. Senior Emma Purfeerst contributed seven points in the win and senior Aimee Dusek added six while classmate Kayla Kusilek chipped in with five.
Juniors Brooke Reardon and Paige Lucking finished with five points each in the win.
Saturday night in the sectional final against Wausau West, the Warriors built a ten-point lead, 28-18, at the half before River Falls pulled to within three midway through the their quarter. But Wausau West held off the Wildcats' comeback attempt and advanced to this weekend's state tournament with a 58-42 win.
"We never stopped playing hard," Igou said about the game. "We cut it to three with about four minutes left in the third, then they came out and hit a three and we lost our edge after that."
Wells finished with 14 points in the loss while Dusek scored all 12 of her points on three-pointers. Purfeerst gave River Falls three players in double digits with 10 points while Reardon, junior Sarah Vitale and sophomore Masy Engel each scored two.
The Cats finish the season with a final record of 13-12 and Igou said he is proud of all of his players. He said he will especially miss the team's four seniors -- Wells, Purfeerst, Dusek and Kusilek.
"They mean a whole lot to me," the fourth-year coach said. "They started when I started. When I took the job I told them you are the future of this program. I have a special bond with those girls."
He said the team's six juniors and two sophomores all played key roles this season as well.
"The juniors, I think they tied this team together," he said. "This team has more of a family-like quality than anybody else. You put these 12 girls in a room and they all start laughing and smiling. There are no separate classes here and I think the juniors bring that attribute to the team.
"The sophomores were both a little apprehensive and shy about what was going on at first, but they went out in practice and got banged around a little and said, OK, this is what it's going to be like," he added. "They both, at different points in time, really stepped up and did some good things for us."