By BURT ANGELI
WAUSAUKEE, Wis. - Stellar senior leadership and a junior sparkplug carried Niagara past Wausaukee in a WIAA Division 5 boys basketball regional championship Saturday night.
Burt Angeli/The Daily News Photos
Niagara defeated Wausaukee 49-31 to capture a WIAA Division 5 boys basketball regional championship Saturday. The sectional-bound Badgers, front, from left: Brett Pultz, Joey Swanson, TJ Liebergen and Adam Parent. Back row, from left: Coach Jim Hoogland, Colin Anderson, Jordan Zawada, Zach Walker, Jacob Oratch, Patrick Moreau, Zach Zychowski and assistant Mike Prost.
The Badger seniors led a defense that limited the Rangers to 11 second-half points and junior Zach Walker came off the bench to score 20 points in the 49-31 decision.
"This is a special team, very, very special," said Jim Hoogland after coaching the Badgers to his first regional title in 10 years at the helm.
Jordan Zawada tacked on 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Badgers. But the Badger coach also praised three other seniors - TJ Liebergen, Colin Anderson and Zach Zychowski - for their efforts.
"We have four good senior leaders and leadership is so important," Hoogland said. "That's what really carried us.
"When things got tough, the seniors kept fighting. They said, 'Follow us, follow us.'"
The seniors produced 22 points and junior starter Joey Swanson chipped in six and also contributed to the defensive charge. But Walker, with 11 second-half points, was the Badger that stood out for Wausaukee Coach John Ranallo.
"Walker got off and that's what killed us," Ranallo said. "Sometimes in big games like this somebody has to step up. He was the guy that stepped up."
Austin Guarniere managed a team-high nine points (seven first-quarter) for the Rangers, who jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first three minutes.
Niagara battled back to within 15-7 entering the second quarter, gained the lead and settled for a 20-20 halftime draw.
"We came out really strong and we're moving the ball around," Ranallo said. "We just couldn't get much going after that.
"I give Niagara a lot of credit. They played great defense throughout the whole game. They out-physicaled us."
Hoogland cited foul trouble for Rangers floor leader Ryan Nystrom, an "excellent ball handler and leader," as another factor.
"Nystrom getting three fouls was a turning point," Hoogland said. "That's when we went to our full-court trapping defense, got some turnovers and the momentum shifted.
"If he didn't get into foul trouble in the first half, this could have been real tough for us."
In the third quarter, Niagara pulled ahead 26-20 but Wausaukee moved to within 26-24 at 5:33. The Rangers collected just seven points over the next 13 minutes.
"Tremendous defense in the second half," Hoogland said. "We held a good ball club to 11 points the whole second half."
Niagara's trapping and man defenses held Wausaukee to single-digit points in the final three quarters. The Rangers had numerous missed shots in the paint but all under intense pressure.
"Sometimes that's just the way it goes," said Ranallo, his Rangers hitting 11 field goals in the game. "We didn't get much to fall and they hit some big shots."
Hoogland credited his defense for taking its toll on the Rangers.
"They got tired," said Hoogland, indicating full-court pressure can drain opponents. "They played a hard game last night and so did we. It's a cumulative thing."
The Badgers (18-7) and Almond-Bancroft (20-5), a 48-44 overtime winner against Northland Lutheran in another regional final Saturday, will clash at 7 p.m. Thursday at Antigo in a sectional semifinal.
Niagara is returning to sectional play for the first time since 1991. The Badgers and top-seeded Rangers (18-7) split M&O Conference meetings this season.
"Ten out of 10 times (we play), we're going to get half of those," Ranallo said. "We're a similar team. Tonight they just outplayed us.
"They did well and deserved to move on. I know they're going to represent the M&O very well."
Niagara 7 13 12 17 - 49
Wausaukee 15 5 6 5 - 31
NIAGARA: Walker 20, Swanson 6, Anderson 4, Zychowski 7, Moreau 1, Zawada 11. FT: 9-15. F: 16.
WAUSAUKEE: Guarniere 9, Orlando 6, Nystrom 5, Delaet 4, Kramer 2, Schlies 5. FT: 6-12. F: 18.
3-point FG: Orlando 2, DeLaet, Walker, Zychowski.