ONALASKA - It looked like the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau High School boys basketball team had climbed the mountain. The Red Hawks had trailed Aquinas by as many as 10 points, but Derek Smidt's 3-pointer meant they had their first lead early in the third quarter.
But that just triggered two big plays by Blugold senior Andy Vegel, who answered Smidt with an immediate 3-pointer and added a three-point play less than a minute later to spark the state's top-ranked Division 3 team.
That gave Aquinas (23-1) enough of a cushion to hold off Riley Bambenek and the fifth-ranked Red Hawks for a 54-45 win in a regional final in front of more than 2,100 people at Onalaska High School on Saturday.
"All of us guards were told at
See AQUINAS, B4
halftime that we had to be more confident in our shots," said Vegel, who scored 10 points. "I got a kickout and just let it fly."
Vegel's 3 came 22 seconds after Smidt's and gave the Blugolds (23-1) a 23-21 lead with 6 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third.
Two possessions later, Vegel rebounded a missed free throw by teammate Mike Conway, scored and was fouled by Bambenek.
His free throw gave the Blugolds a 29-23 lead and stopped the Red Hawks' best chance at wrestling away momentum.
"All of a sudden they were up six and we had to try and fight our way back in again," G-E-T coach Mark Wagner said. "The plays that Vegel made were huge."
They allowed Aquinas to keep control in a much different game than those in attendance expected.
The Red Hawks built much of their success this season through 3-point shooting, but they attempted just nine - and made three - on Saturday.
"We worked on closing out on the 3s, and we were all over ‘em," Aquinas coach Rick Schneider said. "I think they had a hard time getting 3s off, and that's what we'd hoped for."
The Red Hawks also seemed a little tentative to shoot from the perimeter when open.
Bambenek, who scored a game-high 25 points, kept G-E-T in the game by driving to the basket and either scoring or drawing contact - sometimes both.
With that working, the Red Hawks (22-2) leaned on the junior point guard to remain within striking distance.
Bambenek took care of the scoring while the Red Hawks slowed the Blugolds down with a 2-3 zone.
Aquinas didn't struggle against the zone as much as it did against Arcadia on Friday and eventually got the matchup it wanted.
"We made cuts and moved the ball better against in the second half than we did the first," Aquinas senior Evan Pederson said. "Once we got some open looks and hit the shots, they had to go back to man(to-man), which we wanted."
The second of Bambenek's two straight three-point plays in the fourth quarter cut the Aquinas lead to 41-37 with 2:16 left, but two Conway free throws and a Bronson Koenig steal followed.
Koenig shot just 5-for-17 from the floor and 7-for-14 from the free-throw line, but he scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and blocked two shots in the last 1:30.
"This is a big relief," Koenig said of getting the win in the highly anticipated matchup, "and I'm exhausted."