Tiger boys basketball gets a surprise conference title
The New Richmond boys basketball team is a conference champion, but it was an awkwardly earned Middle Border Conference title.
All the Tigers needed to do to win a share of the MBC title was win at Amery last Friday. That did not happen. The Tigers played perhaps their worst game since the calendar turned over to 2009, falling at Amery, 59-47.
This game was moved ahead two hours to accommodate the regional championship game for the Amery girls team, which had been postponed a day.
Word of the Tigers' loss had to get to the Osceola boys team, or one would suspect, before the Chieftains played at Ellsworth later Friday night. Most of the Tigers and coaches didn't wait around to hear news about the score between Osceola and Ellsworth. Osceola could have won the MBC title outright with a win at Ellsworth.
So most of the Tigers got quite a surprise on Saturday morning, when they found out that Osceola had indeed lost at Ellsworth. That loss gift wrapped a share of the conference title that the Tigers had thought they'd lost the night before.
Tiger coach Rick Montreal said the way the team was handed their share of the conference title was "bittersweet."
After spending Friday night stewing over the loss to Amery, the Tiger players and coaches had cause to look at their season in a larger context after finding out they'd won a share of the MBC title.
"Considering where most people had us picked (before the season), I was very proud of what we accomplished, even before I knew about Osceola," Montreal said.
Because the Tigers had graduated all five starters after winning the conference title a year ago, few people thought the Tigers would be a threat in the conference race this season. Montreal was one of those few. In the first practices of the season, he was already saying that he saw something in this year's seniors that led him to believe the Tigers would contend again.
"From Day One the kids had a goal (to win conference) and that's how we went about daily business. Even with the 2-3 start, the kids never wavered," Montreal said.
Montreal built this year's team around a trio of seniors, Derek Sabby, Lance Bauer and John Peper, and junior post player Michael Jansen. The 2008 Tigers were known for the depth. The 2009 Tigers quickly proved to be just as deep. Montreal could go 10-deep on his team this year, with a number of reserves carving out specific roles that made them valuable to this team.
The conference title will help the Tigers move past the difficult game at Amery on Friday. The game was moved up a couple hours and was transferred to the Amery Middle School gym. The Tigers started well, with sophomore Darren O'Flanagan scoring six points as the Tigers built an 8-2 lead. The rest of the quarter, and for that matter the game, was dominated by Amery sophomore Matt Koehler. Koehler hit three three-point shots in the first quarter and scored 12 of the Warriors' 14 points as the Warriors held a 14-11 lead after the opening quarter.
The Tigers were never able to regain the lead. Turnovers weighed down the Tigers in the second quarter. Neither team showed much offense in the second quarter, with Amery leading 21-17 at halftime.
The Tigers kept the game close in the third quarter, trailing 33-30 heading into the fourth quarter.
"As bad as we played, I was feeling we had a chance to steal (the win) in the fourth quarter," Montreal said.
Instead, Amery pulled away from the Tigers. Bauer scored the first hoop of the fourth quarter to cut Amery's lead to one point. Amery then outscored the Tigers 11-2 in the next three minutes to pull away.
What bothered Montreal most about Friday's game was the team wasn't doing the things that made it successful all season.
"We were out of synch from the start," Montreal said. "We were doing a lot of things we characteristically don't do. We had twice as many turnovers as assists."
Allowing Koehler 28 points was alarming too, because the Tigers have been able to shut down opponents' hot scorers with striking regularity this season.
"Amery beat us. They got it done in the fourth quarter and we didn't," Montreal said.
O'Flanagan finished with 12 points to lead the Tigers and Jansen scored nine points. Sabby led the team with seven rebounds.
One of the reasons the Tigers didn't expect Ellsworth to do them a favor and knock off Osceola on Friday was because the Tigers had soundly beaten Ellsworth last Tuesday, 59-37. This was a game that was true to the formulaic pattern of the Tigers' wins this season. The Tigers' defense never let Ellsworth get its offense established and the Tigers' balanced scoring simply overpowered Ellsworth. The Tigers were able to get the ball inside frequently against Ellsworth. That forced Ellsworth to collapse its defense into the paint. That opened up outside shooting lanes for the Tigers, and they sank five three-pointers.
Sabby and Bauer led the Tigers with 12 points each against Ellsworth. Ten Tigers scored in the game as the Tigers pulled away early. By halftime they led 29-13.
The Tigers are now concentrating their energies on the WIAA Division 2 playoffs, where they were the second seed in the regional bracket. The Tigers were scheduled to play at home on Tuesday against Somerset. If the Tigers won on Tuesday, they will play at home again this Thursday, against the winner of Tuesday's game between Osceola and Spooner. The winner of Thursday's game will advance to the regional final, which will be played at Rice Lake High School at 7 p.m. on Saturday.