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Boys' basketball: Cats streak to fifth straight

River Falls junior Mike Vitt (3) puts up a shot while being pressured by Ashland's Jared Tollas in the first half of the Wildcats' 76-39 victory over the Oredockers Saturday, Feb. 17, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
River Falls freshman Zac Johnson (23) goes up for two of his 27 first half points in the Wildcat boys basketball team's nonconference game against Ashland Saturday, Feb. 17, in River Falls. Johnson finished with 31 points in the Cats' 76-39 win over the Oredockers. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

Despite a second place Big Rivers Conference finish, a five-game winning streak and a 13-8 overall record, the Wildcat boys basketball team will open the postseason on the road Friday, March 2, at Tomah.

The Cats overcame a sluggish first half against Chippewa Falls to post a 73-46 victory over the Cardinals Thursday, Feb. 15 that assured no lower than a second place finish in the BRC. Two days later freshman Zac Johnson scored 27 of his 31 points in the first half in a 76-39 win over Ashland for the Cats' fifth straight win and sixth in seven games.

River Falls will wrap up the regular season with a nonconference game at home against Fridley, Minn. Thursday, Feb. 22, before opening the postseason as the No. 5 seed in a WIAA Division 2 regional semifinal at No. 4 Tomah Friday, March 2.

Wildcat head coach Zac Campbell said a rough patch of three weeks from late December to early January, which included a one-point loss to Tomah, came back to haunt the Cats come seeding time. He also said being in the same half of the section as fourth-ranked Onalaska and sixth-ranked La Crosse Central worked against the Wildcats.

"The seed speaks, in part, to the strength of our half section," he said. "For a team finishing second place in a majority Division 1 conference you would expect better. However, the team coming out of our half section, of the eight sections in the state, has been looked at as one of the top teams to contend for a state title in the past handful of years and will be for years to come."

The Cats wrapped up second place in the BRC by outscoring Chippewa Falls 40-14 in the second half last Thursday at home. After clinging to a 33-32 lead at the break, River Falls opened up the second half with a 19-9 run and never looked back to finish 8-4 against conference foes.

Campbell gave all the credit for the second half turnaround to his players.

"While we as coaches somehow get credited with halftime adjustments the true change was in the boys," he said. "Before we the coaches even entered the locker room at halftime the boys had set themselves back to the mindset we had in preparation for this game."

Four Wildcats finished in double figures, led by Johnson and Jaxon Knotek with 16 points each. Aaron Baillargeon added 13 points and seven rebounds while Payton Flood chipped in 11 points.

Campbell pointed to the play of senior guard Adam Feyereisen as being a key to the win. Feyereisen scored eight points on 4-of-5 shooting while grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out nine assists while committing just one turnover.

"The line Adam Feyereisen put up is indicative of how valuable he is to our team," Campbell noted. "Just as important is only having one turnover and also matching up on their best playmaker in the game and holding him to 3-of-11 from the field."

Saturday at home against Ashland, Johnson made all six of his three-point attempts in the first half and finished with a game-high 31 points in a 76-39 throttling of the Oredockers.

"Zac Johnson had one of our most impressive offensive halves of the season totaling 27 first half points," Campbell said. "Mike Vitt set the tone for us defensively making life difficult on their guards and allowing our wing defenders to play more aggressive to get deflections. We set a season high with 24 steals and deflections on the afternoon due to this pressure."

Knotek contributed 16 points and eight rebounds in the win as the Wildcats outrebounded the Oredockers, 34-14. The Cats also shot over 50 percent from the field for the second straight game.

Campbell said Saturday's win was another example of how well the Wildcats have been playing late in the season.

"This is an Ashland team who has won eight games this season and played Rice Lake to a five-point game and the boys completely dominated them in every aspect of the game and should be hungry to continue to build on what they have done the past three weeks," he said.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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