As teams get deeper into the high school basketball playoffs, they generally start to run into squads they haven’t faced much in the past.
That won’t be the case for the McDonell boys team this Thursday.
The Macks will face Rib Lake in the Division 5 sectional semifinals in Chetek. This postseason marks the fourth straight year that the two will square off in the playoffs, and the third time in that span that the matchup will be in the sectional semifinals. McDonell won all three previous contests.
“I think they’re a very talented group,” McDonell coach Archie Sherbinow said of Rib Lake. “They’re young, they’re athletic, they like to get up and down the floor...I think they’re similar to us, they played a tough schedule and were competitive with some good teams, so it’s going to be a tough game.”
The two squads took slightly different paths to get to this point. Third-seeded McDonell (15-10) won a fourth straight regional title by defeating second-seeded Owen-Withee 64-63 in the regional finals on Saturday. Rib Lake (17-7), the No. 1 seed in its half of the sectional, topped No. 5 Turtle Lake 67-53 to convincingly win a third regional title in the last four seasons.
The Macks had to work until the very last second to clinch their win over Owen-Withee. Cory Hoglund hit a shot with eight seconds remaining to put McDonell up 64-63, and grabbed the game-ending rebound at the other end of the court moments later.
McDonell had to get the job done with all-time leading scorer Hayden Baughman on the bench for long stretches due to foul trouble. The rest of the Macks rose to the occasion when their number was called.
“I love it, it takes a lot of pressure off me,” Baughman, a senior, said of the team’s well-rounded effort on Saturday. “It just makes our team better, and makes us even more capable to beat better teams.”
Despite trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, the Macks toughed it out to keep their playoff hopes alive. Even though they survived, there are still things they want to improve.
“The fact that we kept playing and kept after it with what we wanted to do (was good),” Sherbinow said. “But we’ve got to make sure we take care of the ball, I think we turned it over far too many times. To turn it over as much as we did in a regional championship, we were kind of lucky to get away.”
Hoglund’s return from injury proved to be a huge boost on Saturday. He had missed several games at the end of the regular season, and returned for the regional semifinals last week.
“We saw why it’s nice to have Cory back on the floor. I think he does a lot for us on the defensive end as well, but he willed us back into the game when things were looking bleak.” Sherbinow said.
The exhilarating win has the Macks feeling confident heading into their matchup with the Redmen.
“I feel excited. We’re a young, fun group. The guys are a lot of fun to be around, a lot of fun to play with. We’ve got some stuff we need to clean up, but it’s been a lot of fun and hopefully we can keep having fun and win some more games,” Baughman said.
If the Macks want to come out on top against Rib Lake again, they’ll need to find a way to slow down some talented scorers. According to WisSports.net, Levi Ewan leads the team with an average of 18 points per game and shoots 44 percent from 3-point range.
Nick Gerstberger (10.7 PPG) and Cody Blomberg (10 PPG) provide solid scoring options for the Redmen as well.
“They’ve got a really nice point guard in Ewan,” Sherbinow said. “And they’ve got some good, athletic players around him.”
While McDonell as a program is quite familiar with Rib Lake, many of the Macks’ players this year haven’t had any experience playing against the Redmen.
In last year’s regional semifinal matchup with Rib Lake, Baughman and Hoglund were the only two current McDonell players to see the floor. Hoglund scored 10 points in that game, and Baughman had seven.
Despite not playing in the previous contests against Rib Lake, the rest of the Macks have seen it all unfold in the past from a close-up view.
“I understand what the circumstances are and how big of a game this is,” McDonell senior guard Joey Huffcutt said. “In years past we’ve played them in similar circumstances and they were the underdog, but I think maybe we can assume that role (this year).”
Based on seeds alone, the Macks will be the underdogs on Thursday. That doesn’t concern them, though.
“I don’t think we have to play like underdogs. We can play like the top dog,” Huffcutt said.
Thursday’s winner will move on to Saturday’s sectional final in Spooner, where a state tournament berth will be on the line against the winner of Thursday’s matchup between South Shore and Drummond at Northwestern.