The Rhinelander High School boys basketball team, off to a 2-0 start to their season, knew they’d have their work cut out for them Tuesday night as they traveled to battle a Merrill team that featured returning Wisconsin Valley Conference first-team all-star, 6′ 8″ David Jesperson, an array of quick guards and a deep bench. In a see-saw battle with numerous lead changes throughout the game, good ball-handling, an opportunistic defense, and a dominant fourth quarter propelled the Hodags to victory, 56-47.
The Hodags began the game riding the hot hand of senior Shane White, who scored six of the team’s first 15 points in the first quarter. They led early, but a buzzer-beater at the end of the period by Merrill’s Paul Theorin tied the game at 15.
The second quarter saw Merrill limit White to four points from the floor, force some off-target Hodag shots, and outscored them 14-11, giving the Blue Jays the lead at the half, 29-26.
“We started out very calm, very basic,” commented head coach Derek Lemmens after the game. “I think we got a little out of control at times and fell into a trap because we pressured, but then we also took that same tempo that we’re trying to force on them, and unfortunately, we applied that to our offense. We weren’t as smooth and as sharp as we should have been.”
In the second half, the Hodags made some key adjustments. Defensively, they came up with eight steals in the third quarter alone, plus three in the fourth for a total of 17 in the game, taking away numerous scoring opportunities from the Jays. At one point, they forced three consecutive turnovers in the Merrill front-court that led to Hodag buckets. They also held Jesperson in check throughout the game, with most of his 21 points coming from second-chance opportunities.
Coach Lemmens credited his guards for their tough defensive play.
“I would not want Brad Kenote or Tyler Thorsen guarding me. They just bother people. They really do. They have a motor, they just don’t stop and it wears on guys.”
Offensively, the Hodags battled throughout the third quarter before transitioning to a “21” look in the fourth, which opened up more scoring chances, especially for senior Brett Mathews.
“We just had to move more,” said Lemmens. “We were kind of waiting on the wing for that pass, and our point guards were having trouble getting it in. We just weren’t running our offense…we finally went to our ’21’ and spaced the floor and we had good things happen. Up until that point, I thought we were rushing things offensively.”
Mathews, who was 0-8 from the floor before the period began, found his rhythm in the fourth and could not be stopped, going on to score 12 points.
Coach Lemmens was pleased with Mathews’ play. “We were finally were able to isolate him a little bit, which we wanted to do because we have the size…finally in the fourth quarter we found him. Once a kid like that gets his rhythm, then he starts feeling comfortable, starts feeling good.”
“I was just playing,” said Mathews. “In the second half, Shane came up to the free throw line and just opened up the lane wide-open, and I just kept back-cutting my guy because he wasn’t seeing me, and the guards did a great job of getting me the ball, and I just finished underneath.”
Shane White led the Hodags with 15 points. Colton Volkmann had 14, Mathews 12, plus Brad Kenote added 10. Tyler Thorsen contributed three, while Austin Bowman tallied two. In the end, despite it being a non-conference matchup, it was a key early-season victory for the Hodags, who improved to 3-0.
“Every victory’s important,” said Lemmens. “We have high expectations this season, and we schedule teams like Merrill of the (Wisconsin) Valley Conference because we want to be challenged. We got that challenge tonight, and the guys responded.”