With 2 ½ minutes left in the first half, everything was set up for the Tomah Timberwolves to advance to the WIAA Division 2 Regional final. Mason Brandt had just hit a 3-pointer to give the Timberwolves a 24-9 lead, and River Falls had two starters on the bench with three fouls, including North Dakota State recruit Jaxon Knotek.
But the River Falls bench produced a modest rally shortly before halftime, and Knotek lived up to his scouting report in the second half as the Wildcats defeated Tomah 59-52 in a Regional semifinal contest Friday at Tomah High School. The Timberwolves had earned the number-four seed in the top half half of the Stevens Point Sectional and were hoping to reach their first Regional final contest since the WIAA increased the number of tournament divisions from four to five.
“They executed better than us in the second half,” said Tomah coach Brad Plueger.
Tomah dominated the first 16 minutes of the contest. The Timberwolves forced River Falls into almost nothing except contested jumpers, and Tomah center Josh Dahlke grabbed nearly every defensive rebound.
But River Falls, which scored just 11 points in the first 17 minutes of the first half, exploded for seven in the final 56 seconds to cut gap to 28-18 at intermission. All seven points came from bench players, and the rally energized the Wildcats’ starters. Mike Vitt opened the second half by converting a midcourt steal into a layup, and Vitt later scored four points during a 10-0 River Falls run that tied the game at 37-37 with 8:35 left.
Neither team led by more than three points over the next six minutes, and two foul shots by Dahlke put the Timberwolves ahead 49-48 with 2:23 remaining. River Falls then took off on a 10-0 run that decided the game.
Plueger said the last two minutes of the first half were critical.
“It carried over into the second half,” Plueger said. “They just kept hanging around and they started hitting their threes.”
Tomah, meanwhile, didn’t make a single 3-point shot after halftime, which hamstrung an offense trying to deal with double-teams of Dahlke in the post. Plueger said the lack of perimeter offense hurt the Timberwolves after halftime.
“We got locked in on high-low and didn’t move the ball as much,” Plueger.
The Timberwolves got a huge game from Dahlke, who led all scorers with 25 points and made eight of 11 foul shots.
“I thought he played in control and was so disciplined on the defensive side,” Plueger said. “You could just see his leadership − knowing where he wanted the ball to go and directing traffic.”
No other Tomah player reached double figures.
Knotek led the Wildcats with 17 points, with 15 coming after halftime. Payton Flood scored all 12 of his points in the second half.
Three different River Falls players accounted for six 3-pointers after halftime.
“They have other players who can shoot the three − they have a nice team,” Plueger said.
River Falls (15-9) was defeated Saturday in the Regional final by La Crosse Central 70-52. River Falls had its seven-game winning streak snapped, and Central will face Onalaska in a sectional semifinal Thursday, March 8.
Tomah finished at 14-9, its first winning season since 2004-05. It was the final game for seniors Dahlke, Brandt, Trey Gnewikow, Kyle Kroener, Cade Peterson, Seth Huneck, Peter Brey, Easton Maeder, Joshua Carlson and Trevor Shutter.
“We have 10 seniors, and you don’t see that very often,” Plueger said. “You don’t see very many kids like that who see it all the way through.”
RIVER FALLS 59, TOMAH 52
River Falls—Knotek 17, Vitt 6, Feyereisen 6, Spafford 4, Flood 12, Tirrell 9, Johnson 3, Baillargeon 2.
Tomah—T. Gnewikow 5, Kroener 7, Brandt 3, Dahlke 25, Brey 6, Shutter 6.
Three-point goals—Knotek 2, Flood 2, Tirrell 3, T. Gnewikow, Brandt, Dahlke.
River Falls 1841−59