When previewing his team’s matchup, UW-La Crosse interim men’s basketball coach Kent Dernbach knew it would come down to how it backcourt players fared.

The visiting Carroll Pioneers feature strong, athletic combo guards that the Eagles’ first-year coach believed would be a tough physical test for his squad. Fortunately for Dernbach, his players proved him wrong.

An aggressive mindset from the start and the Eagles’ ability to turn the corner on drives resulted in a 80-60 nonconference drubbing of Carroll in front of 475 spectators at Mitchell Hall.

The win is a good sending off point for UW-L — the team is doesn’t play again until after Christmas, taking a break for finals and the holidays.

“I think our guys saw what could happen when we’ve got 18 guys active and engaged, and that’s great,” Dernbach said.

UW-La Crosse’s Tanner Bruchs puts up a shot under pressure from Carroll defenders during Wednesday’s game at Mitchell Hall. Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Dernbach and the Eagles’ bench were as animated as they’ve been in the early portion of the season, calling out suggestions and celebrating successes. Their words were what a spectator can hear Dernbach saying at practice — “Be sound!” as in their defensive rotations and on-ball play; “One more!” as in pass, trading a good shot for a great one.

“This is the most locked in we’ve been defensively all year,” Dernbach said. “Our guys believed if we stayed in gaps, we could make Carroll struggle. It’s the most active our bench has probably been, and they saw the results.”

Junior Ben Meinholz led all scorers with 14, while juniors Brendon Manning and Tanner Bruchs and freshman Nolan Wright all added 12. UW-L shot a season-high 59.6 percent from the field.

UW-L attacked the paint in the first half, with its guards and wings getting dribble penetration and either scoring or dumping the ball off for an easy layup. The close shots led to an efficient half — UW-L shot 15 of 30 (50 percent) from the field, including 12-for-22 (54.5 percent) on two-pointers. The Eagles led 34-16 at halftime, and 24 of their points were in the paint.

“Carroll’s roster has one guy 6-6 or above, so we knew they would get out on the perimeter and pressure us,” Dernbach said. “We knew if we ripped through and got by them we could get to the front of the rim and get to the front of the rim for yourself or a teammate, and our guys executed that perfectly tonight.”

Manning was big in the first half as well, scoring nine points on 4 of 6 shooting. With a taller defender on him most of the half, he caught the ball on the wing and drove around him for layups. The possession he had a smaller matchup, he went to the post and got fouled on a shot. Tanner Bruchs added seven points before halftime.

The Eagles went on a 20-4 run in the half to take control.

Despite a dismal shooting half — Carroll went 7-for-28 — the Pioneers stayed in the game with their rebounding. Seven offensive rebounds in the first half led to six second-chance points.