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Boys basketball: Boys hit rough patch

Wildcat senior Aaron Baillargeon (24) beats Eau Claire Memorial’s Bryce Burlingame (23) for a layup in the second half of the Cats' 68-60 overtime loss to the Old Abes Friday, Jan. 5, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Wildcat sophomore Payton Flood (11) drives past Eau Claire Memorial's Caden Boser (35) in the second half of the Cats' 68-60 overtime loss to the Old Abes Friday, Jan. 5, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

No excuses.

That's how Wildat head basketball coach Zac Campbell described his team's two losses last week—a 67-55 road loss at sectional foe Holmen Tuesday, Jan. 2, and a 68-60 overtime loss to Eau Claire Memorial at home Friday, Jan. 5—that stretched the Cats' losing streak to three games.

Campbell said the Wildcats' recent struggles have included sickness, responsibility and mental toughness, and while all three are part of the natural ebb and flow of a season, the team's resiliency is being tested.

"As much as everybody wants ribbons and roses in high school athletics, the great test that athletics provides is the chance for resilience and mental toughness in response to adversity," he said. "Excuses and blame are only going to dig us a hole. Choosing to respond positively with mental toughness and accountability will overcome our current situation and allow us to continue to grow as a team."

The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Wildcats (6-5 overall, 3-2 BRC) with a road trip to conference co-leader Chippewa Falls (8-3, 3-1) Tuesday, Jan. 9 followed by home games against one-loss teams Prescott Friday, Jan. 12, and Eau Claire North Friday, Jan. 19.

Last Friday's loss to Eau Claire Memorial (5-5, 2-2) was particularly gut-wrenching for the Wildcats. After leading by as many as seven in the second half, the Cats were clinging to a two-point lead with a chance to expand it with under a minute left when Memorial came up with a steal and layup to tie the score, 57-57, with 20 seconds remaining.

River Falls couldn't get off a shot on its ensuing possession and the game went to overtime where Memorial scored the first five points and held on for the 68-60 win.

"You spend Wednesday through Friday game planning and preparing for a team, you physically battle all game with a team who had both a size and strength advantage on us, and a four-possession span from the end of regulation to the beginning of overtime completely crushed us," Campbell said. "As we talked early in the year, the importance of working hard and intelligence throughout gives you a chance in the end, but you must make plays in the most critical possessions of the game and Memorial did that through that span, winning all four key possessions."

Memorial's 6-5 post player Cormac Sampson, a University of Wisconsin football recruit, provided the Wildcats' biggest challenge and led both teams with 24 points and 12 rebounds.

"He is a tough match with his size and strength advantage," Campbell said. "We had a few fundamental errors during the game, but give credit to Ryan Spafford and Nate Rixmann as you know you are going to leave the game physically exhausted trying to defend him."

Jaxon Kotek finished with 14 points, six rebounds, six assists, two blocked shots and two steals to lead River Falls while Zac Johnson scored 13 points, Adam Feyereisen had 11 points, five assists and two steals and Spafford registered 10 points and five rebounds.

The Wildcats shot better from the field than the Old Abes (45.5 percent to 42.6) but were just 6-of-26 from three-point range and made just 4-of-7 free throws compared to Memorial's 17-of-22.

"Offensively the boys executed really well against the first true zone defensive team we have seen all year," Campbell said. "We took care of the basketball, made good reads on zone shifts, crashed the glass with purpose, and unfortunately didn't hit enough rhythm threes the zone gave us to stretch the lead out."

Earlier in the week at Holmen the Wildcats closed the first half with a 6-0 run and scored the first four points of the second half to cut Holmen's lead to one but couldn't get over the hump in a 67-55 loss to the Vikings.

"Defensively I thought we did a decent job of keeping their quickness out of the paint, which was the key to our defensive game plan," Campbell said. "However, we got beat multiple times in transition through communication breakdowns and they made a couple tough deep looks that we did not hit with regularity."

Johnson led the Cats with 22 points and Knotek finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists while Spafford scored 10 points.

"Zac Johnson had a strong game offensively as he was patient for his opportunities and took advantage when the defense trailed plays," Campbell said. "Ryan Spafford did a great job finishing at the rim and attacking their big. Although Jaxon did not shoot the ball the way he's accustomed to he did a great job of having rebound purpose and hand activity on the defensive end."

River Falls went to the free throw line just three times in the game while Holmen went 12-of-20 from the line.

"During this week we were outshot 42-10 at the free throw line," Campbell noted. "This is obviously a major roadblock to winning games if you can't defend with discipline and float too much offensively allowing easy defense for our opponent. This will get better for us and we must win free throw attempt battles in the future."

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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