SPOONER — The journey for this year's McDonell boys basketball team was much different than seasons past.
The destination was very much the same.
The Macks advanced to the Division 5 state tournament for the third year in a row, defeating South Shore 62-48 in the sectional finals on Saturday night.
"This group really had some adversity all year long. We had to stay together as a team," McDonell coach Archie Sherbinow said. "From the beginning of the season, just one thing or another went sideways for us. So overcoming all that, I think this definitely has a lot of reward for the coaching staff as well as the guys on the team."
The Macks (17-10) will play in the Division 5 semifinals on Friday morning at the Kohl Center in Madison against Deerfield after the state tournament was reseeded on Sunday morning. McDonell is a No. 3 seed with Deerfield earning the No. 2 seed. Bangor is the top seed in Division 5 and faces No. 4 Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran at 9:05 a.m.
"It feels good," Macks senior Hayden Baughman said. "It's the third time back to state now, and we're really excited, so it's going to be a lot of fun."
Baughman led the way for the Macks with 17 points on Saturday as the Macks used a late run in the first half to pull out to a 12-point lead going into halftime.
After South Shore (23-3) ran out to a 10-8 lead in the first five minutes of the game, McDonell pulled off an 8-0 run to claim a lead it would not lose.
The Macks had much more success getting the ball into the lane than the Cardinals, and Sherbinow credited his defense for holding South Shore at a distance. McDonell didn't struggle much with the Cardinals' defensive pressure, either.
"I thought we played some tough D early on, and rebounded the ball well early," he said. "And we handled the ball, we didn't turn over the ball as much."
The Macks closed the first half outscoring the Cardinals 16-7 in the final four minutes of play. Baughman scored half of McDonell's points during that stretch. That gave them a 32-20 lead going into the break.
"Towards the end of the first half I started hitting some shots and getting into a rhythm," Baughman said. "Then I started coming into the game, trying to make a few more plays."
The Macks gave themselves even more of a cushion to start the second half. Charlie Bleskachek and Joey Huffcutt both hit a 3-pointer in the first three minutes of the half, and Jaebin Bourget and Baughman added triples of their own with under 12 minutes to play to extend the lead to 46-29.
South Shore battled back a bit, but never got closer than 11 points to the lead.
McDonell played a clean game on the defensive end, only tallying eight fouls over the course of the contest.
Bleskachek finished with 13 points, and Cory Hoglund added 11 points for McDonell. Connor Sorenson led South Shore with 18 points.
The Macks played a brutal strength of schedule during the regular season, and it's paying off in the postseason. McDonell played three teams that will also be at the state tournament next week: Prescott (24-2, Division 3), Clear Lake (25-0, Division 4) and Marathon (21-4, Division 4).
"During the season, it was a little tough. We had our ups and downs, everyone was still learning. Right now, I think we're on the upswing or on our peak, and I think that's awesome going into state," Baughman said.
The team’s 17-10 record is much different from the last two seasons, when the Macks were 25-2 (2016) and 24-4 (2017) entering the state tournament. They didn't dominate during the regular season like in previous years, but they've pulled things together at the right time in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely a different feeling. I’m super excited for everyone that’s involved. These guys deserve a nice payoff like this for some of the stuff they’ve gone through this year,” Sherbinow said.
While McDonell is making its third straight trip to state, many of the Macks haven’t actually played on the state’s biggest stage yet. Only Baughman and Hoglund played significant minutes on the team last season. The rest of the players have stepped up and learned things on the fly, and Sherbinow expects them to be ready for the Kohl Center on Friday.
“We knew a guy like Eion Kressin wouldn’t get much playing time behind Alex (Ohde) and Grayson (Knowlton) last year, but we made sure he was along for all the stuff that went with it. So I think he’ll have some of that. Hayden and the seniors will be good leaders, and Cory as well,” Sherbinow said.
McDonell won the state title in 2016 and fell in the semifinals last year against Shullsburg. This will be the Macks' fourth trip to the WIAA state tournament in program history, and they'll be seeking their second WIAA state championship.
The Division 5 semifinals begin at 9:05 a.m. on Friday, with the second game to follow shortly after the conclusion of the first.