RIVER FALLS, Wis.-- For five straight seasons the River Falls boys’ basketball team has traveled to either Onalaska or La Crosse Central to face a top-ten ranked team in the regional finals. One of those teams has gone on to become sectional champion the last four seasons, with La Crosse Central winning the state title in 2017.
This time it was top-ranked Onalaska’s turn to end the Wildcats’ season, beating the Cats 53-38 in the regional final Saturday night in Onalaska.
“This is the most talented Onalaska team we've seen,” River Falls coach Zac Campbell said. “Their No. 1 ranking through the majority of the year in Division 2 is well warranted as they have length and athleticism that few programs in the state possess. And their half court defense is as good as I've seen in quite some time from a high school team.”
Campbell said that meant the Wildcats needed to get as many baskets through transition as they could. But the Hilltoppers did a great job of taking away the Wildcat outlet passes and held the Cats to just 14 of 41 shooting from the field, including 0-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half.
“If we hit a couple shots early it's easier for everyone else to relax and play in flow, and certainly would have changed the makeup of the game,” Campbell said.
Defensively the Wildcats forced an uncharacteristic 16 Onalaska turnovers.
“Defensively we had one of our best efforts of the season,” Campbell said. “The boys did a very good job of communicating and taking away actions that Onalaska had success getting all year. An overwhelming majority of their baskets came through transition off of our turnovers and missed jumpers and off of second chance points.”
Payton Flood was the lone Wildcat in double figures with 10 points while Zac Johnson scored eight and Mike Johnson had seven points and a team-high five rebounds.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats advanced to the regional final with a 66-54 victory at fourth-seeded Tomah the night before. River Falls led wire to wire, and Campbell said they did a good job of handling an 8-day layoff.
“The boys had been playing with good flow and with basketball being such a rhythm game we needed to have challenging practices, but not overdo our work with two important games over the weekend,” Campbell said.
The Wildcats answered that challenge, leading by as many as 15 in the first half on their way to opening up a 29-17 lead at the break.
“While our rotations defensively were a step slow all night we had very timely offense,” Campbell noted. “Payton Flood, JT Dougherty, Michael Schurman, and Ragan Pinnow each hit key three point shots in the second half to answer runs that Tomah threw at us.”
Campbell said Flood played one of the best games of his career leading the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding with 15 points and six boards as well as recording team highs in assists (4) and deflections (2).
Zac Johnson had 15 points, four assists and two steals and JT Dougherty added 10 points and six boards while Schurman contributed nine points, Liam Dougherty scored seven and Mike Johnson had six points and six rebounds.
“Michael Schurman's activity on the defensive end was huge for us as we had too many guys moving too slow in their rotations,” Campbell said. “He's a kid who has a great motor and has the capability to raise our team’s level of energy through his play.”
The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 18-6.