RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- Through the first 18 games of the season, the River Falls boys’ basketball team didn’t have any decided in the final 30 seconds. Last week they had two.
The Cats dropped a 59-56 decision at Chippewa Falls Tuesday, Feb. 18, on a last second three-pointer by the Cardinals, but they bounced back two nights later at Eau Claire Memorial when Zac Johnson hit two late free throws to give th Cats a one point lead, then blocked a potential game-winning shot by the Old Abes to give the Cats a 71-70 win.
The Big Rivers Conference split left the Wildcats with a league record of 7-3 (15-5 overall), two games behind first place Chippewa Falls and one game back of Eau Claire North heading into the final week of the regular season and rematches with both the Cardinals and Huskies this week.
“We may not be where we wanted to be in the conference race heading into the last week of the season, but we have a path to the conference title,” head coach Zac Campbell noted.
Campbell said he liked the way his team came out with energy and took control early against Chippewa Falls, stretching their lead to six on two occasions including with five minutes left. But each time Chippewa answered with a 3-pointer, and Cardinal senior Peyton Rogers-Schmidt knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game from the corner with 0.6 of a second on the clock to give Chippewa the 59-56 win.
“Rodgers-Schmidt has been playing at a high level this past month and had one of the best games of his career against us,” Campbell said. “He is a difficult guard for us defensively as he is so quick with his first step and elevates off the floor in a hurry.”
Rodgers-Schmidt led all scorers with 27 points while Johnson finished with 15 points and six rebounds for River Falls and JT Dougherty scored 13 points while Mike Johnson contributed 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“When you look at the whole picture of the game, we didn't lose it on a missed or made shot or a missed assignment down the stretch,” Campbell noted. “We were unable to play with quickness off of our screening action and our weak side defense has gotten lost here in the past week for some reason. I need to do a better job of getting us back to where we had been from a hustle and grit side of things.”
The Cats needed every bit of that hustle and grit in Thursday night’s one point win at Eau Claire Memorial. Mike Johnson and Liam Dougherty went a combined 15 of 15 from the field, but the Wildcats’ defensive lapses allowed the Old Abes to stay in the game. River Falls held a 15-point lead in the first half but an 11-0 Memorial run gave the Old Abes a 44-42 lead at the break.
“They broke us down in transition and were able to kick to open shooters off of our help or lack of movement on the weak side,” Campbell said. “They also held a 30 percent advantage from the 3-point line, which really puts you in a whole.”
Memorial’s 10th 3-pointer of the game gave them a 70-69 lead late, but Zac Johnson was able to get to the free throw line and knocked down both shots, then came up with a big block just before the buzzer to give the Cats the 71-70 win.
“It was great to see Zac and Payton (Flood) step up defensively in that last possession and take away any sort of offensive action that Memorial tried to create through rub screens and pitches, resulting in Zac blocking the shot to secure the win,” Campbell said.
Mike Johnson finished with 21 points on 8 of 8 shooting from the field while Liam Dougherty hit all seven of his field goals to finish with 14 points. Zac Johnson finished with 19 points and three blocked shots while Michael Tiffany led the Wildcats in rebounds with seven.
After wrapping up the regular season at home against Chippewa Falls Thursday, Feb. 27, the Wildcats will open up the postseason as the No. 5 seed in the 11-team sectional and will visit No. 4 Tomah (15-5) for a regional semifinal game Friday, March 6. The winner will likely face top-seeded Onalaska (20-2) in the regional final Saturday, March 7.