RIVER FALLS, Wis. — To some, it’s merely an expectation met.
But that doesn’t mean the Aquinas High School boys basketball team can’t celebrate.
The Blugolds, under the spotlight all season, punched their return ticket to the WIAA Division 3 state tournament Saturday with a 66-49 victory over Barron in a sectional final.
Fourth-ranked Aquinas (22-4), a three-time WIAA state champion making its sixth state tournament appearance, plays top-ranked Little Chute (25-1) in a state semifinal at 9:05 a.m. Friday at the Kohl Center in Madison.
“I felt all season long that everyone’s expectation is so high, that we almost can’t meet their expectations no matter what we do,” Aquinas coach Rick Schneider said. “We’ve done some real good things, but you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of some people outside our basketball world.
“I’m proud of the kids for playing the way they’re playing. I’m proud of the way they’ve continued to be dialed into our ultimate goal even though we had some adversity.”
Aquinas had trouble putting away teams all season, and it may have cost it a conference title. But with perhaps their best back-to-back performances all season — Aquinas handled Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau 63-47 in a sectional semifinal Thursday night — the fourth-ranked Blugolds may be putting it together at just the right time.
“We have a different mindset,” said Wisconsin recruit Bronson Koenig, who had 14 points and eight assists and was congratulated by Badgers assistant Greg Gard after the game. “We know that it’s one-and-done, we have a lot of seniors on the team. We want to win.”
It didn’t take long for the Blugolds to establish their superiority Saturday. They had a careless turnover on their first possession but scored on their next four trips down the floor and led 10-0, forcing Barron (24-2) to call its first timeout less than 3 minutes into the game.
“We were out of sync,” Barron coach Ky Baumgard said, “and played maybe too fast for our style.”
Aquinas kept going. The Blugolds scored on three of their next four possessions, taking a 16-4 lead on a layup by Michael Conway with 3:03 left in the first quarter.
“We wanted to shock them with our pressure and intensity,” said Nolan Ritter, who hit an early 3-pointer and finished with a game-high 18 points. “Set the tone for the whole game.”
The lead was as big as 19 before Barron settled down and started to play better in the third quarter, when when 6-foot-4 forward Carsen Davis scored eight of his 16 points. The Golden Bears were within 12 at one point, but Ritter and Koenig each hit two 3-pointers over the next 4 minutes to grab back all the momentum.
“It was great to see Nolan knock down some shots,” Schneider said. “It’s great for his confidence. When guys are making shots, we’re going to be tough to beat because it’s almost like pick your poison.”
Making the Blugolds even more dangerous than their balance is their passing ability.
It starts with Koenig and continues through Conway — he’s headed to the University of Minnesota as a preferred walk-on quarterback — and the group of Ritter, Weber and reserve Reggie Rabb.
“It’s pretty difficult to defend,” said Weber, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds. “Bronson’s one of the top passers in the state. It’s incredible the way he can get through the gaps.
“I think it’s frustrating (for other teams).”
Schneider said it’s almost impossible to coach against because you can’t mimic it in practice, and the first time you play against it, it’s in a game situation.
Aquinas had 20 assists on its 24 field goals.
“We didn’t rotate fast enough,” Baumgard said. “We knew they were going to be able to get some things in the middle, so we had to help the helper. We were just slow to help the helper.”
Up next is Little Chute, a 59-37 winner over defending Division 3 champion Brillion. The Mustangs are led by two UW-Green Bay recruits — 6-foot-8 Kenneth Lowe and 6-foot-6 Turner Botz — and have faced the same incredibly high expectations as Aquinas.
Schneider hopes his team remains focused.
“We’re really paying attention to detail right now in practice, in preparation time periods, almost like a classroom setting,” Schneider said. “That’s important. If we listen well, we’ll be very prepared, and we’ll carry that over to the game, and we’re going to play better basketball.”