RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- River Falls boys’ basketball coach Zac Campbell said it was tough delivering the news to his team last week that it was the No. 5 seed in its Division 2 sectional and wouldn’t have a home game for the playoffs.
So what did the Wildcats do? They went out and knocked off the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in the Division 1 sectional-- Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire North-- to lock up second place in the Big Rivers Conference and finish the regular season 17-5.
“I'm fairly certain we are the only team in the state who won't get to host a playoff game with a 17 win regular season,” Campbell noted. “Their response in attitude and play was certainly inspired,”
The Wildcats led wire-to-wire in a 68-52 road victory at Eau Claire North last Monday before senior Mike Johnson hit a layup at the buzzer on senior night to give the Cats a 70-69 win over the BRC champion Cardinals Thursday night at home.
The pair of wins allowed the Wildcats to finish second in the final BRC standings at 9-3, one game behind Chippewa Falls and one game ahead of Eau Claire North.
The Wildcats hope they can ride that momentum into the playoffs in what is arguable the toughest sectional in the state. River Falls will open the postseason with a regional semifinal at No. 4 seed Tomah (17-5) this Friday, March 6. A win will most likely send them to top-seeded and top-ranked Onalaska (21-1) for the regional final the following night.
Six of the 11 teams in the Wildcat sectional have records of 17-5 or better and include two of the three top-ranked teams in the state and three conference champions.
Campbell pointed out that four of Tomah’s five losses this season have come against the top two ranked teams in the state-- Onalaska and La Crosse Central.
“This is a tough road trip for us to make, but I look forward to another challenge with this group who has responded time and time again, going 10-2 on the road this season,” Campbell noted.
Onalaska’s only loss this season meanwhile was to the sixth-ranked team in the nation-- Minnehaha Academy.
“But I love the team we have,” Campbell said. “I love the fight we've developed, and there is no other team I'd rather go down to their place to challenge ourselves than this group.”
In their final home game last Thursday against Chippewa Falls, it was only fitting that Wildcat seniors Payton Flood and Johnson teamed up for the game-winning shot on Senior Night.
Flood threw a long inbounds pass from halfcourt to Johnson along the sideline, and Johnson drove the baseline and hit a contested layup at the buzzer to give the Wildcats the 70-69 victory.
“In terms of leaving a memory in your final game on your homecourt, it would be tough to script a better last eight seconds,” Campbell said. “It was a moment that no one on our team will likely ever forget.”
River Falls led by as many as 11 in the first half before the Cardinals cut it to four, 30-26 at the break. Chippewa chipped away and led 69-68 with just under three seconds remaining before Johnson hauled in Flood’s pass in stride, cut to the basket and banked in the game-winning layup at the buzzer.
Zac Johnson led River Falls with 21 points, including four 3-pointers, and JT Dougherty scored 18 points while Flood finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three assists. Mike Johnson pulled down a team-high eight rebounds and scored six points while the Wildcats’ third senior, Michael Tiffany, came up with a team-high three steals.
“Again, the mental toughness this team has developed over the course of the year gave them a chance to win this game,” Campbell said.
Earlier in the week at Eau Claire North, Mike Johnson scored 21 points and pulled down six rebounds and Dougherty added 14 points and a team-high eight boards in the Wildcats’ 68-52 victory over the Huskies.
River Falls led by seven at the break, 34-27, before pulling away in the second half.
Zac Johnson contributed 12 points in the victory and Flood had 10 points, seven rebounds and six assists as the Wildcats outrebounded the Huskies 43-28.
“While leading throughout the game, the early-mid part of the second half was the best mental and physical response this team has shown all year,” Campbell said. “We had a flurry of plays that we missed some easy looks and had a few tough calls go against us. We haven't always been able to mentally rebound from series like this, but the response the team showed was something I'm extremely proud of.”