River Falls senior Mike Vitt said it was like a movie out there.
"Last game of the season against our rivals for the conference title?" he noted. "All these people here. It was hard to hear out there. It's just great."
Vitt and the Wildcats made sure the home fans left the matinee happy last Saturday, Feb. 23, when they defeated Hudson 62-57 to earn a share of the Big Rivers Conference championship in front of a packed house at the Cat's Den.
The Wildcat victory left Hudson and River Falls with identical records of 9-3 and gave the Cats a sweep over their rivals to the west. The game featured nine lead changes and nine ties, the last at 55-55 with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining before sophomore Zac Johnson hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats the lead for good. Senior Adam Feyereisen came up with a crucial steal and two free throws in the closing seconds to give River Falls its first BRC title since 2011.
"Holy cow it feels so good," Johnson said. "To win a conference championship for the first time since 2011; man, it's so exciting to be here right now."
It's the first conference title for the Cats under sixth-year coach Zac Campbell, and he said it was a testament to the entire River Falls basketball community.
"It was absolutely the stamp of approval that our program had been working so hard towards for the past six seasons," he said. "As enjoyable as it is to sit back and take in everything that happened over the course of 90 minutes, this moment of accomplishment isn't only about the current boys at the varsity level. This moment is about every Wildcat boys basketball player that put in time during the summer, that busted their backs all season, and committed to the challenging process of being your best yet didn't get to experience the exhilaration the 15 players did on Saturday afternoon."
The game was tied 30-30 at halftime, 40-40 with 14 minutes left, and 42-42 at the 12:34 mark before Hudson went up by five, 49-44, with 8:30 remaining. River Falls went back on top, 52-51 on a drive by Johnson with three minutes to play and the score changed hands three times over the next minute-and-a-half until Hudson tied it 55-55 on a pair of free throws by Luke Healy.
Johnson's second 3-pointer of the game put River Falls up 58-55 and Feyereisen got a steal, was fouled and hit both free throws to make it a 60-55 game with 44.3 seconds left.
Hudson got a basket by Healy to make it a three-point game, 60-57, with 25 seconds on the clock. The Cats missed a pair of free throws but forced a Raider turnover on the ensuing pssession and Feyereisen hit two more free throws with three seconds left to make the final 62-57.
Campbell said it was gratifying to see the Wildcats respond to every Raider challenge.
"There's not much of a better feeling for a coach than to watch the boys you spend so much time with face adversity, respond positively to adversity, and make clutch play after clutch play in the biggest basketball game many of them have ever experienced," he said.
Johnson led the Wildcats with 16 points and Payton Flood and JT Dougherty scored 13 points each while senior Mike Johnson came off the bench to contribute 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Feyereisen finished with six points and nine assists.
Cats get by CF
The Wildcats put themselves in position for a conference title with a 59-49 victory at Chippewa Falls two nights earlier in Chippewa Falls. Zac Johnson and Dougherty combined for 28 points and five of River Falls' eight 3-pointers as the Cats kept themselves within striking distance of then first-place Hudson.
"Leading up to this game I was so impressed with the boys focus and intent on Chippewa Falls," Campbell said. "It's easy to fall into a trap of looking ahead, but, as a coach, I felt they were fully engaged all week on the task of going to a tough road environment and executing the game plan."
Zac Johnson was 3-for-4 from 3-point range and Dougherty hit 2 of 4 while Taylor Tirrel hit two from long range and Vitt had another. Tirrel and Feyereisen contributed eight points each and Payton Flood scored seven while Vitt finished with six.
Next up for the Wildcats is a WIAA Division semifinal against either Rice Lake or Ashland Friday, March 1, at the Cat's Den. The Cats defeated Ashland in their only matchup this season and have beaten Rice Lake twice. But Campbell said they'll have to be ready in the postseason.
"Rice Lake and Ashland each have a dominant guard who athletically has the ability to take over the game," Campbell said. "In either team's case, we must be focused as it is always difficult to beat a team a second or third time, in Rice Lake's case."