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Boys' basketball: Cats settle for split in BRC

Wildcat junior Taylor Tirrel (13) beats Menomonie's Sam Zbornik and Davis Barthen (5) to a rebound late in the first half of the Cats' 53-52 loss to the Mustangs Thursday, Feb. 1, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Wildcat senior Ryan Spafford (10) puts up a short baseline jumper in the first half of the Cats' 53-52 loss to Menomonie Thursday, Feb. 1, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

Last week's win over Rice Lake would have meant a lot more if the Wildcat boys basketball team had beaten Menomonie two nights earlier.

As it stood, the Wildcats let a 17-point first half lead slip away Thursday, Feb. 1 at home and the Mustangs hit a shot with seven seconds remaining to defeat the Cats, 53-52 for their first Big Rivers Conference victory of the season.

River Falls bounced back with an 82-71 victory over BRC co-leader Rice Lake Saturday, Feb. 3 at home, highlighted by senior Jaxon Knotek scoring his 1,000th career point. But when the dust settled the Cats found themselves in third place in the BRC, two games behind Eau Claire North and a game behind the Warriors.

River Falls coach Zac Campbell said Thursday's loss to the Mustangs was tough to talk about.

"Coming off a strong performance at Hudson we had a great first half against Menomonie," he said. "I didn't feel like we relaxed at half, the boys were still in a good place with our attack and mindset. Menomonie built confidence and energy while we took the easy way out offensively in throwing up the first average look we had. Our off ball action got stagnant and defensively we lost all activity, help, and toughness to the defensive glass that we've fought for all year. Allowing physical mistakes to control our mental mistakes has been a thorn for us this year which is why you've seen so much of our ups and downs."

After leading by as many as 17 points in the first half the Cats took a 38-22 lead into the break. But Menomonie held River Falls to just 14 second half points and whittled the lead down until Jace Kressin hit the go-ahead basket with 7.3 seconds left.

Knotek finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in the loss and Adam Feyereisen scored 14 points while going 6-for-6 from the field while Zac Johnson finished with 13 points.

Campbell said Saturday's win over Rice Lake was much more enjoyable to talk about.

"On the surface this win will be attributed to a good shooting night," he said. "As a coaching staff that doesn't register in our top five. Film, scout, and practice on Friday was focused by the boys, and our Saturday morning workout was well paced and focused, which I really believe led to the performance we had on Saturday night."

The Cats shot 54.3 percent (25-of-46) for the game including 10-of-19 from the three-point range. Knotek was 9-of-16 from the field and 12-of-13 from the free throw line to lead all scorers with 33 points and scored his 1,001st career point on his final field goal.

"Jaxon's work ethic and athletic ability allow him to score it in a variety of ways as we've seen over the past three years," Campbell said. "This is a great accomplishment for both he and his family for all the time and effort they've put in to growing individually as well as our team and most importantly our community."

Knotek becomes just the fifth Wildcat to eclipse the 1,000 point mark, joining Roger Kuss, Jay Wollan, Jake Voeltz and Luke Murphy.

Johnson and Mike Vitt added 11 points each in the win while Payton Flood scored nine.

Campbell said the Wildcats' defensive effort was a key to the win.

"Defensively we were focused on taking a couple of spots on the floor away from Rice Lake and the boys did a good job of that," he said. "Offensively, we hit some shots early and really made a lot of really good reads on off ball screens in the second half. This is a senior dominant team who has played well all year, but has really stepped it up the last couple of weeks and we were able to hold a double digit lead the majority of the game against them."

The Cats, 9-8 overall, 6-4 in the BRC, visited Baldwin-Woodville for a nonconference game Tuesday, Feb. 6, before returning to BRC action Friday, Feb. 9, at Eau Claire Memorial (8-8, 5-4). The Wildcats lost to the Old Abes in their first meeting, 68-60, in overtime in River Falls.

Campbell called it a revenge game that would assure the Cats of a top-three finish in the conference with a win.

"We let the game get away from us late at our place and the boys are very motivated to get the game at their place," he said. "They are a different team than any other team we face in our conference in that they physically punish you inside and are not nearly as free flow on the offensive end as most teams in our league have become."

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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