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Cats beat buzzer

Basketball fans at the high school gym sure got their money's worth last Tuesday.

The opening act featured an 80-76 triple overtime win by the River Falls junior varsity boys' team over Hudson that forced the varsity game to start nearly 25 minutes late.

But the main event proved to be worth the wait for Wildcat fans when senior Ryan Gilbertson hauled in a long pass from junior Chase Rickord after Hudson had tied the score with four seconds left and made a lay-up at the buzzer to give the Cats a 67-65 win over the Raiders.

The victory avenged the Cats' only loss of the season at the hands of Hudson back on Dec. 7 and moved the Cats into a tie with the Raiders for first place in the Big Rivers Conference.

"What a game," Wildcat head coach Greg Gaulke said after his team nearly let an 18-point second half lead slip away only to win at the buzzer. "They came back at us and we came back at them. I couldn't be prouder of the boys."

River Falls led 17-15 at the end of the first quarter before outscoring the Raiders 18-7 in the second quarter to take a 35-22 lead at halftime. The lead grew to 18, 42-24, following a jumper and a three-pointer by Rickord early in the third quarter before the Raiders started to chip away.

Hudson pulled to within 10 points, 48-38, following a pair of free throws by Matt Miller with just under a minute to play in the third. But the Cats maintained their double-digit lead until two free throws by Jay Langdon and a three-point play by Miller pulled Hudson to within six, 59-53, with 1:47 remaining.

The Cats struggled at the free throw line down the stretch, allowing Hudson to pull to within four, 61-57, on a three-pointer by Miller with 49 seconds left. After Rickord hit a pair of free throws for the Cats, Miller drained another three to make it a 63-60 game with 30 seconds remaining.

Voeltz hit one of two free throws to increase the Wildcat lead to four points with 25.2 ticks on the clock, but Miller stepped up again for the Raiders, hitting nothing but net on a fall-away three-pointer with 18 seconds remaining to pull Hudson to within one, 64-63.

"Some of those shots were unconscious," Gaulke said about Miller's fourth-quarter performance. "He just couldn't miss."

And he wasn't done yet.

After Rickord hit one of two free throws with 16.6 seconds left to make it a two-point game, Miller drove the lane and let go with a floater that dropped in to tie the score, 65-65, with four seconds remaining.

But as quickly as Miller tied the score, Rickord grabbed the ball and threw a long inbounds pass to Gilbertson at the other end of the court near the foul line. And with two Hudson players bearing down on him, Gilbertson caught the ball, turned and dribbled, and laid in a shot off the glass that fell in as the buzzer sounded to give the Cats the win.

"That was just pure intuition," Gaulke said about Rickord's bomb to Gilbertson. "If there had been more time we could have called a time out and set up a play, but then Hudson could have set up their defense. It was just a great basketball decision."

Voeltz finished with 25 points to lead River Falls while Rickord added 21 points and Gilbertson finished with 10. Gilbertson also pulled down a team-high eight rebounds while Voeltz and Rickord each grabbed six. Guard Tony Jenkins dished out five assists and came up with two steals in the win.

"Jake just took over," Gaulke said about the 6-4 junior Voeltz. "In big games big players step up and he did."

Miller led the Raiders with 25 points but his biggest buckets came after Wildcat senior Brian Giebel fouled out with just over a minute remaining.

"Giebel's job on Miller was fabulous," Gaulke said. "And Rickord did a great job on Langdon."

The loss was the first in the BRC for Hudson and dropped them into a tie with the Wildcats for first place in the conference, each at 6-1.

River Falls improved to 7-1 in the BRC, and 12-1 overall, by escaping from Chippewa Falls with a 47-45 win over the Cardinals last Friday night. Chippewa Falls was winless in conference play heading into the game and Gaulke said that made them even more dangerous on their home court.

"I keep telling the players that when you're on top, everybody wants you," he said. "Our goal is a Big Rivers championship, but if they win one game it can make their season. Chippewa had everything to gain and they came at us."

The Cardinals shot 67 percent from the floor in the contest, including 7-of-10 from three-point range.

"We'd get a little lead, then they would hit a couple of threes and come right back," Gaulke said. "But we showed good toughness at the end and got some critical rebounds and protected the ball."

Jenkins and Voeltz had 11 points each to lead the Cats while Rickord added nine points and Gilbertson seven. Voeltz also pulled down eight rebounds while Gilbertson grabbed seven.

"They had incredible sagging on Jake, two or three guys at a time," Gaulke said about the Cardinals approach to slowing down Voeltz. "We have to make teams pay for that with our perimeter." Gaulke said he hopes the return of senior Tyler Obermueller, who has missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, will give the Cats another threat from the outside.

The Cats will play their next four games on the road beginning Thursday night (Feb. 3) at Eau Claire North. They then travel to Rice Lake Saturday and Menomonie next Thursday, Feb. 10, and visit New Richmond Saturday, Feb. 12.

"We haven't had a lot of road games, so we need to get some road toughness," Gaulke said. "Fans can make a big difference. But if we do what we should do, offensively and defensively, we should win."