Cats stay in the hunt
Halfway through the Big Rivers Conference boys basketball schedule, the race for the conference title is shaping up to be a dogfight. And River Falls is right in the thick of things.
Midway through the BRC season six of the seven teams are within one game of each other including the Wildcats, who are tied for the top spot with Eau Claire North and Rice Lake with records of 4-2. Hudson, Eau Claire Memorial and Chippewa Falls are bunched up right behind at 3-3.
The Wildcats stayed tied at the top with a big 46-35 road victory at Chippewa Falls last Tuesday, Jan. 9, before dropping a 57-50 nonconference decision to Prescott, the ninth-ranked team in Division 3, Friday, Jan. 12 at home.
With four of the Wildcats' six remaining conference games at home, River Falls coach Zac Campbell feels the road to the BRC title still runs through the Cats' Den, beginning with a matchup against Eau Claire North this Friday, Jan. 19, at 7:15 p.m.
"Eau Claire North is deserving of their top 10 ranking in the Division 1 state poll this week and they will have revenge on their mind after we got them at their place," Campbell said, referring to the Cats' 61-58 win in Eau Claire Dec. 19. "They have three scorers all capable of taking over a game. The importance of locking in every possession defensively while continuing to find our identity offensively will be so key for us to come away with a victory."
The Wildcats did just that last Tuesday in Chippewa Falls, jumping out to a 9-0 lead and turning Chippewa Falls over 16 times on their way to a 46-35 victory.
"We had talked leading into this game a lot about how important our execution would be on the offensive end as I feel that Chippewa has been the best defensive team in our conference through the first half of the season," Campbell said.
Jaxon Knotek led the Wildcats with 19 points, including the last eight points of the first half to give the Cats a 27-10 lead at the break, and Zac Johnson scored 12 points as the Wildcats' lead ballooned to 24 in the second half. Adam Feyereisen and Payton Flood had six points and three assists each while Feyereisen led the team in rebounds with four.
"Offensively, our execution still isn't where we need it to be, however, Jaxon bailed us out with a couple difficult shots and our starting perimeter players in Feyereisen, Flood, and Johnson finished at a high percentage clip, going 10-for-17 from the field," Campbell noted. "Defensively this is the type of performance we need to be accustomed to playing. When things have gone well for us, our defense is playing its best allowing us to be a transition basketball team. Staying in this mindset defensively will allow us to continue to compete for a conference crown."
Friday's game between the Wildcats and Prescott marked a renewal of what Campbell called a "mini-rivalry" between the two local neighbors with last year's Division 3 state runner-up Cardinals taking a 57-50 victory inside a packed River Falls gym.
"Coach (Nick) Johnson and staff at Prescott have done a great job in turning some talented players and carried that over into making a powerhouse program," Campbell said about the Cardinals. "The atmosphere was what you hope for in a Friday night on your home court, unfortunately the result did not follow."
Campbell said from an offensive standpoint he felt the Wildcats matched up well with Prescott, but too many missed open looks early kept the Cats from developing any sort of rhythm. River Falls made just 1-of-14 three-point attempts and were 9-of-12 from the free throw line compared to Prescott's 16-of-21.
"Defensively we knew we were going to have to have a special night team defending their dribble drive/ball screen offense," Campbell said. "There were specific areas of the court we were not going to allow them to get to and unfortunately our secondary defenders were not flying around and as active as what we had been on Tuesday night at Chippewa. Fouling has been a major problem for us this year and it continued to hurt us giving up 21 free throw attempts. We have some poor tendencies of putting our hands on defenders and wanting to be shot blockers rather than putting our bodies in front of offensive players and making them shoot tough shots over the top."
Knotek was the lone Wildcat in double figures with 15 points and pulled down a team-high eight rebounds while Aaron Baillargeon, Johnson and Flood all finished with nine points. Baillargeon also had six rebounds and Flood had five as the Wildcats outrebounded the Cardinals, 32-17.