Maybe it was a 10th-seeded team going up against a No. 2 team on their home court.
Maybe it was the two-hour bus ride in the middle of winter.
Maybe it just wasn’t their night.
It was probably a combination of all three that added up to the Waupaca boys’ basketball team’s season-ending 49-29 defeat to Rhinelander Friday, March 2, in a Division 2 regional semifinal.
The 10th-seeded Comets had advanced to the game after opening the state tournament three nights earlier with a 49-46 win over New London.
Rhinelander 49, Waupaca 29
RHINELANDER – The Comets headed to Rhinelander High School’s Jim Miazga Community Gym with a tournament win already in their pocket, while the Hodags were looking for their first playoff win since 2007.
Although the Hodags struggled at times and led by only five points at halftime, they sealed the win with a solid second half.
Comet post player Nate Jenson was whistled for his second foul only 1:42 into the game. He ended up sitting out the rest of the first half while the Hodags also kept Waupaca’s leading scorer, Brando Vasquez, in check.
Rhinelander outscored the Comets 7-6 in the first quarter and took a 23-17 halftime lead on Shane White’s dunk at the end of the half.
White opened the second half with a three-pointer and Mitch Reinthaler added a pair of free throws to give the Hodags a 28-17 lead a minute into the third quarter.
Waupaca was able to trim the lead to seven on baskets from Eric Schoohs and Vasquez, but the Hodags quickly pushed the lead back to 11 and led 32-23 heading into the fourth quarter.
Waupaca was able to cut the lead to seven one more time on another Vasquez basket, but the Hodags then outscored the Comets 17-4 the rest of the way.
No one on either team finished in double figures. Schoohs led Waupaca with seven, while Colton Volkmann led Rhinelander with nine.
Vasquez finished with a season-low four points and Jenson was held to one basket in the fourth quarter.
“We needed to step up and play better and it didn’t happen,” coach Ron Weber said.
Kyle Comer’s defense helped wear Vasquez down, he said.
“So much of what happens with our offense is predicated around what he creates and what he can do,” he said. “They really did shut him down and Nate kind of shut himself down with his two fouls.”
The game was the final high school basketball game for Schoohs and fellow seniors Tyler Dayton, Nate Christian, Trevor Sweeney, Kevin Moe and Jordan Christensen.
“It was a rough season, no arguing that,” Weber said. “I did tell them that there were points where we could’ve thrown in the white towel. It’s tough to go through a 3 1/2-month season and not reap the benefits of your hard work at practice with wins.
“I’ll tell you, they just kept plugging away and at the end, they took it really, really serious,” he said. “Like seniors do, it’s almost over, we’re going to listen better, we’re going to practice harder, we’re going to give more, we’re going to prepare better for our opponent. Doggone it, if they don’t come up with a nice win over Freedom, then a great upset win at New London and then come here with the adversity of playing them on their home court. I really give the seniors a lot of credit for hanging in there and making basketball exciting.”
Waupaca 49, New London 46
NEW LONDON – High school teams can usually count on senior leadership.
Once in a while, however, freshman leadership comes into play.
That’s what happened against the Bulldogs as Vasquez, playing in his first tournament basketball game, helped lead his team to a win.
He scored a game-high 22 points and hit four three-pointers in the first half alone, including a three-quarter court shot at the end of the first half that gave Waupaca a 25-20 lead at the break.
Waupaca took its biggest lead of the game – 39-33 – on Christian’s three-pointer late in the third quarter. The Comets led
39-35 heading into the fourth quarter and led 46-43 with a minute remaining. New London’s Tyler Wenzel cut the lead to 47-46 with a
three-pointer with 10 seconds remaining, but Schoohs scored with four seconds left to put the Comets up by three.
Wenzel’s three-point attempt bounced off the rim at the buzzer and the Comets won their opening tournament game for the second year in a row.
Schoohs finished with nine points for Waupaca, while Jenson added eight.
Jacob Pinch and Chris Steingraber led New London with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
“We wavered a little bit, but in the end, our kids wanted it and our desire came through,” Weber said. “We made enough free throws and took care of the ball well enough down the stretch to pull out the win.”
It was a physical game, but Weber didn’t mind.
“I like how the game was called,” he said. “They let the kids play for the most part. That’s good because you can make a hustle play, give a little bit extra and not have to worry about those ticky-tack fouls. It allowed you to be aggressive.”
Vasquez turned out to be the difference in the game.
“He was able to take it to the rim a number of times and he’s gotten better at that all year,” Weber said. “He was kind of finding his way earlier in the season like a typical point guard where you make that first pass to get the offense started. As he started being more confident in his game, he started looking for his spots. He’s really good at picking and choosing when it’s there. When it’s not, he really is smart at backing it out and starting it all over again.”
And what about his shot to end the first half?
“He chucks it up there with no regard for it going in just to get it up to the rim,” Weber said. “It banks in, they call it good and we end up winning by three points. That’s the kind of luck you have to have on your side sometimes. In the tournament, it’s magnified. We’re practicing tomorrow and New London is not.”
New London took 17 more shots than Waupaca, but the Comets shot 52 percent from the floor and made nine of 11 free throws.
“You have no choice in the tournament and we made that very, very clear on the bench,” Weber said. “There’s no choice. You’ve got to be boss with the ball. You cannot turn it over. Everything has to be all-out strong.
“It wasn’t just our starters,” he added. “I thought we had wonderful performances off the bench, especially in the first half. In the second half, the rotation got tighter with the game getting closer and closer, but that’s just basketball.”