The Bluejay basketball team looked like it was going to have its way with Wausau East after grabbing an 11-4 lead in the first quarter of Friday’s playoff game in the MHS Fieldhouse.
By halftime, East had actually taken a 19-17 lead and it appeared the battle was on.
The first impression was the real one.
Merrill took complete charge of the second half, closing the third quarter with a 15-2 run for a 37-28 lead, then making the Lumberjacks pay when they started fouling with a full 5:28 left in the contest. The Jays connected on 7-of-9 free throws after that point on the way to the 50-33 triumph that saw second- and third-string platoons enter the game in the final minutes.
“At halftime I felt like we had left things on the board,” MHS coach Kurt Soderberg said “We were really pressing and doing things we didn’t need to do. Chaz wants to win and takes on a little too much, and he did a much better job with that in the second half. All the kids did a good job of relaxing in the second half. We talked about managing our emotions and the kids did that. We also played excellent defense.
“More specifically, Austin Reissmann was a catalyst for us, hitting threes. Jake Anderson had his usual game. Keenan did the best he could on (6’ 10” Dylan) Hamlin, despite giving up five inches. Jon (Gruetzmacher) and Trey (Stevenson) really came in and did a good job for us. We drove to the basket and got to the foul line. We hit 18-of-25 free throws. All those things add up.”
Soderberg felt Merrill could have taken some of the suspense out of the game in the second quarter.
“We missed some opportunities to put the game out of reach,” he said. ‘We could have done a better job with our offensive efficiency and tightened up on defense. Then maybe it’s a 10-point game. It didn’t happen. Basketball is a game of runs. We settled for the three to much and that kept it close.”
It didn’t help that top-seeded Merrill hadn’t played a game for two weeks, while #5 East defeated #4 Lakeland on Tuesday just to reach the game.
“We never talked about (the lay-off),” Soderberg said. “We worked on our stuff and played short games. They loved it and it was a fun week. We needed to heal up a little bit. Jake had a busted up wrist a little bit and we had some fatigued legs.
“What maybe hurt us was the waiting. They were so jacked up to play. We never talked about the two-week lay-off because we didn’t want them to have an excuse, but it was a legitimate concern.”
That won’t be an issue going forward, since Merrill hosts #3 Mosinee at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday. The Indians upset Rhinelander 52-49 on Friday. Merrill lost a 71-64 game to Mosinee back in December when it was playing a gauntlet of four games in six days. Mosinee received 45 free throws to Merrill’s 19 in the contest.
The Jays were paced by Mootz (24 points), Reissmann (14), Anderson (5), Scott Wallace (3) and Adam Messerschmidt (2). East got 10 from J.P. Lacy and 7 from Hamlin.