After Kyle Kroener hit the game-winning shot Thursday against Menomonie, it was rinse, lather and repeat against River Falls.
Kroener drove the lane to convert down-to-the-wire baskets on consecutive nights to lift the Timberwolves past Menomonie 45-43 and River Falls 46-45 during the Tomah Holiday Classic at Tomah High School.
Tomah coach Brad Plueger appreciated having a senior who can break down a defense in the final seconds of a tight game.
“It’s huge,” Plueger said. “Kyle has made a really nice transition to being a point guard and being able to get the ball to the rim.”
The Timberwolves appeared to have control of the River Falls game after Jaxon Knotek, the Wildcats’ best player, exited with his fifth foul with 42 seconds left and the game tied at 42-42.
Peter Brey made both foul shots to give Tomah a 44-42 lead, but on River Falls’ next possession, the defense walked away from a wide-open Taylor Tirrel, who drained a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 45-44 edge with 19 seconds left.
Tomah brought the ball across the midcourt line, and Plueger called timeout with 10 seconds left. The ensuing inbounds was from the baseline, and Kroener had to track down a long entry pass into the backcourt.
Kroener crossed the midcourt line, drove to his right, picked up his dribble 10 feet from the basket, pivoted to his right and made a 10-foot bank shot with 1.4 seconds left.
“He got a nice step-through, just like the night before − just this time from a little farther out,” Plueger said.
River Falls got a last-second shot that hit the backboard but didn’t come close to the rim.
Kroener’s best work, however, might have come earlier in the game. He drew the defensive assignment on Knotek, who’s headed to Division 1 North Dakota State next season. He lit up the Timberwolves for 37 points last season but scored just 11 Thursday with Tomah playing primarily man-to-man defense.
“Kyle had to guard their best player, and he did an outstanding job − and it was everybody else ... we had people there to help on defense,” Plueger said.
Even though the Timberwolves had won the night before, the victory over River Falls had the feel of a bounce-back performance. Tomah played as poorly as it could against a winless Menomonie team for the first 24 minutes and had to claw back from a 15-point second half deficit. Tomah rallied with a zone defense that disrupted Menomonie’s perimeter passing and foul shooting from Brey, who hit seven straight free throws, including a pair that gave Tomah a 43-40 lead with 1:14.
But like the River Falls contest, the Timberwolves left a 3-point shooter wide open, and Menomonie sophomore Ethan Wurtzel cashed in to deadlock the contest with 40 seconds left.
The Timberwolves held for the final shot and put the ball in the hands of Kroener, who drove the lane and converted a twisting reverse layup with 3.5 seconds seconds left.
Menomonie called timeout and managed to launch a plausible shot from 25 feet away, but the attempt was an airball, and the Timberwolves escaped with a victory that shouldn’t have been that hard.
Plueger said his team came into the River Falls contest with a much better mindset.
“You could see they were hungry, and it was good for us to get back into the gym right away,” he said. “It was good for them to come out and execute at a higher level.”
He said getting off to a good start against a 6-2 River Falls team was critical. Tomah took an early 11-4 lead and never let River Falls get comfortable on offense.
“I was so impressed with how we started the game, because we didn’t start Holmen well, and we didn’t start Menomonie well,” Plueger said. “I felt our efficiency was better (against River Falls). I know we didn’t have a lot of points up on the board, but we ran a lot of long possessions with multiple people touching the ball. That’s what we needed, and that’s what we didn’t have the night before.”
Brey led the Timberwolves against Menomonie with 20 points. It also marked the first extended varsity action for freshman Kade Gnewikow. He scored six points over the two games, including a bucket that gave Tomah a one-point lead late in the Menomonie contest. Plueger said Gnewikow was also a disruptive force when Tomah used its 1-1-3 zone.
Trevor Shutter was Tomah’s high scorer against River Falls with 12 points.
The two victories will come in handy during the seeding meeting for the upper half of the Stevens Point Sectional. Tomah, River Falls and Menomonie are all part of the 11-team draw.
“They were marked as conference games, and that was on our board all week,” Plueger said. “These are sectional games, and they mean a lot, whether you win by one or win by 20. To go to the seeding meeting and say we beat both of them is really important for us.”
The Timberwolves return to action Tuesday with a 7:45 p.m. nonconference game at Adams-Friendship. It’s the second half of a girls/boys varsity doubleheader. On Friday, they play the second half of a girls/boys varsity doubleheader at Sparta.
TOMAH 45 MENOMONIE 43
Menomonie—Wurtzel 5, Boecker 7, Ebert 9, Sleichert 3, Barthen 3, Johnson 9, Zbornik 7.
Tomah—T. Gnewikow 1, Kroener 11, Gerke 3, Dahlke 8, K. Gnewikow 2, Brey 20.
Three-point goals—Ebert 2, Johnston, Barthen, Sleichert, Zbornik, Wurtzerl.
Menomonie 29 14 − 43
Tomah 16 29 − 45
TOMAH 46 RIVER FALLS 45
River Falls—Knotek 11, Vitt 3, Feyereisen 4, Spafford 4, Flood 9, Tirrell 6, Johnson 2, Baillargeon 6,
Tomah—T. Gnewikow 6, Kroener 5, Dahlke 8, K. Gnewikow 4, Brey 10, Maeder 1, Shutter 12.
Three-point goals—Vitt, Flood, Tirrell, Baillargeon 2, T. Gnewikow.
River Falls 21 24 − 45
Tomah 20 26 − 46