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Basketball: Boys fall to top seed

After storming back for a 59-52 victory over No. 4 seed Tomah in a WIAA Division 2 regional semifinal Friday, March 2, the fifth-seeded Wildcat boys basketball team couldn't keep up with defending state champion and top seed La Crosse Central the next night and saw its season send with a 70-52 loss to the Red Raiders.

Friday night the Wildcats trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before rallying for their seventh straight win.

"This game was a microcosm of staying the course," head coach Zac Campbell said. "The game was won by our boys believing in what we do, being confident in their abilities, and staying the course even when all is not smooth."

After falling behind by 16, the Cats cut the lead to 10 at the break, 28-18, despite leading scorers Jaxon Knotek and Zac Johnson both on the bench with three fouls. Mike Vitt had a steal and a layup right out of halftime and Taylor Tirrel and Payton Flood each hit big three-pointers to get the Cats back in the game.

With under two minutes remaining, a Wildcat steal led to a layup by Flood and the Wildcats came up with three defensive stops in a row to close out the win.

"When teams trail by large margins early you often see comebacks, but there are a lot of times teams get there, but have a tough time sustaining that comeback because you fought so hard to get to that point," Campbell noted. "The boys were relentless and made play after play in a tough environment with their home crowd and a tough gym to play in. This was exactly who these boys became through their commitment to pounding the stone all season."

Knotek finished with 12 points and six rebounds in the win and Flood scored 12 points while Tirrel had nine. Adam Feyereisen contributed six points, six rebounds and 10 assists. Campbell said Vitt was a key to the Wildcats' front court pressure on Tomah's point guard while seniors Ryan Spafford's and Aaron Baillargeon's energy was contagious.

The Wildcats couldn't rest after the win, however, as they had to turn around and face a rested La Crosse Central team that was coming off a bye.

"Playing the second ranked team in the state and defending state champion is a tall enough task, let alone doing it on the back end of back-to-backs, then having to go to their homecourt, but there was relentlessness in our boys eyes for this opportunity from our morning scout, to afternoon shootaround, and into warm-ups," Campbell said. "We hadn't lost a game in over a month. They knew there was no need to fear as we had trained for this situation."

The Wildcats jumped on the Red Raiders early and opened up a seven-point lead 10 minutes in before hitting a cold spell late in the first half and into the second that allowed Central to get back into the game.

"Unfortunately they made about every contested look from the interior and the game was called tighter than we were accustomed to, causing a 21-7 foul differential leading to a 27-4 free throw differential," Campbell noted. "To Central's credit they played a great game. You hear of teams catching somebody on a bad night, but Central was near as good as we had seen them yet this year on film. They will be a tough out for any team the rest of the way."

Knotek was the one Wildcat in double figures with 19 points while Johnson scored nine, all from three-point range. Flod added seven points and five rebounds and Baillargeon scored seven points while Feyereisen had eight assists and four steals.

The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 15-9.

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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