River Falls boys' season ends in regional semifinal defeat

By Reagan Hoverman
Posted 3/9/23

The Division 2 regional semifinal featured the fourth-seeded River Falls Wildcats hosting the fifth-seeded Rice Lake Warriors. The two Big Rivers Conference foes met twice this year and split the …

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River Falls boys' season ends in regional semifinal defeat


The Division 2 regional semifinal featured the fourth-seeded River Falls Wildcats hosting the fifth-seeded Rice Lake Warriors. The two Big Rivers Conference foes met twice this year and split the season series heading into Friday night’s postseason debut.

River Falls jumped out to a 2-0 lead less than a minute into the home regional semifinal, but the Warriors strung together the first big scoring run of the game. Rice Lake took the lead with eight unanswered points and didn’t relinquish it the rest of the night on the way to a 55-41 win over the Wildcats.

Rice Lake played a gritty, physical first five minutes while building an early 10-3 lead. During that stretch, the Warriors beat the Wildcats to loose balls, got offensive rebounds and buried a pair of three-pointers that forced River Falls head coach Zac Campbell to call a timeout.

River Falls scored just six points through the first seven minutes of action. Both mid-range and three-point jumpers wouldn’t fall and the Wildcats couldn’t establish any rhythm offensively. Coach Campbell spoke about how falling behind early and not getting some of those loose balls impacted his team’s confidence offensively.

“They hit some of those jumpers and got several loose balls early,” Campbell said. “The lid on the basket is a confidence piece that I believe is the root of getting beat to those loose balls. When we lose confidence, those shots just don’t come off our hand the same.”

It wasn’t until midway through the first half that River Falls started connecting on jumpers. Senior Aidan Carufel and junior Joey Butz both made a pair of three-pointers in the final nine minutes of the half that got the Wildcats back into the game.

Their shooting helped River Falls trim Rice Lake’s lead to four points, 30-26, going into the break. The Wildcats did it largely without sophomore forward Eli Johnson, who spent most of the first half on the bench in foul trouble.

Johnson’s three fouls kept him sidelined to begin the second half and that’s when Rice Lake made its largest run of the game. The Warriors began the second frame on a 15-6 run that spanned nearly a dozen minutes and culminated in a 45-32 lead with under seven to play.

Johnson finished with just two points and saw the floor sparingly throughout the night. The foul trouble sidelined him in the first half and then matchup issues defensively kept him off the floor against Rice Lake’s quick, undersized lineup.

“We wanted to get him going on the offensive end but unfortunately, we never got to that point,” Campbell said. “He got in foul trouble and when we’re behind and they’re trying to run the clock out, we have to ball pressure out against guards who are quicker than us. At that point, there’s just not a spot for him because we needed guys who could move.”

River Falls tried to chip away at Rice Lake’s lead late in the second half, but the Warriors milked the clock every chance they got. Rice Lake had multiple minute-long possessions down the stretch which extinguished any hopes of a River Falls comeback.

The Warriors cruised to a 55-41 win over River Falls in the regional semifinal before ultimately losing to top-seeded Medford in the Division 2 regional championship the following night. Coach Campbell spoke about Rice Lake’s clock management that ultimately sealed the Wildcats’ defeat.

“They absolutely won this game, but when you talk about the shot clock, that’s part of the reason people want it,” Campbell said. “They absolutely did what they should have done when they got a lead with a thinner rotation. The longer possessions really got us.”

River Falls senior Josh Godden led the Wildcats with 11 points while Carufel and Butz each had 10. Sophomore Preston Johnson returned for the first time since late January after missing extended time with a lower leg injury and had two points.

After graduating four starters from last year’s team that played in a regional championship game, the Wildcats had multiple questions surrounding the roster heading into this season in terms of roles, experience and expectations.

The 2022-23 Wildcats not only finished with a 15-10 record but also earned a top-three in the Big Rivers Conference standings for the sixth consecutive season. Coach Campbell spoke about what this year’s team accomplished after seeing limited varsity experience previously.

“More so this year than any year recently there were a lot of unknowns,” Campbell said. “Our guys ran off nine wins in a row and went from a team that people didn’t know what we were going to be and turned into third place in the conference. For a bunch of guys that didn’t have a lot of varsity playing time, for them to come in and continue that top-three tradition was special.”

River Falls’ outgoing senior class includes Jake and Josh Godden, Carufel, Quincy Johnson, Nate Gervais and Erik Chapin. Campbell spoke about his outgoing senior class.

“When you do a competitive sport there are a lot of ups and downs, and we’ve got six seniors that have been our rocks and are very steady,” Campbell said. “Our drama was so limited this year, more so than almost any year I’ve coached. That’s because of those guys that set our tone and did a really good job of being steady.”

Next year the Wildcats return their two top scorers, Butz and Preston Johnson, and the team’s top rebounder Eli Johnson. The returning Wildcats will be back in action throughout the offseason in the Stillwater Summer League.

River Falls Sports, River Falls, Boys Basketball, WIAA Playoffs