MERRILL - Not often does a 17-point loss feel good, but considering the way the Rhinelander High School girls' basketball started the season, Friday's 47-30 loss at Merrill was clearly a step in the right direction.
The Lady Hodags (0-4, 0-0 Great Northern) were blown out by 47, 42 and 46 points in their first three contests. Friday's loss was the team's best performance to date offensively and defensively.
"There was definite improvement," RHS girls' basketball coach Mark Jacobson said. "We've got more of a flow going (on the offense). In the first half, we figured out how to break their press, which has been a goal of ours. When I talked to the girls at halftime, I said, 'Goal accomplished.' We still turn it over too much in the half-court set, but those are things we can definitely clean up and we will attack those next week."
Friday's outcome was never really in question. As in the first three games of the season, the Hodags gave up a big run to start the game. Merrill (1-1, 0-0 Wisconsin Valley) took a 16-2 lead after the first quarter and never looked back. The Hodag offense finally found some traction in the second quarter, scoring 10 points as it went to the locker room down 30-12. It was the first time this season that the Hodags put up double-digit points in a quarter.
Jacobson noted the team had opportunities to play even better in the first half.
"Had we turned the ball over a few less times and we had a couple wide-open layups that we missed, instead of an 18-point (deficit), maybe it's a 10-point deficit," he said.
Rhinelander won a quarter for the first time this season, outscoring Merrill 9-5 in the third quarter to trim the lead to 14 points. Any thoughts of a Hodag comeback were quickly extinguished by an 8-2 run by Merrill to start the fourth, which pushed the Bluejays' lead to 20.
The Hodags also turned in their best defensive performance of the season, limiting Merrill to 32.3 percent shooting from the field (20-of-62). The Bluejays only shot 23.3 percent in the second half (7-of-30). Merrill's Renee Sladek finished with 20 points and six rebounds, but was only 9-of-24 from the field.
"My message to the girls was this was vastly improved," Jacobson said. "I told them I was proud of them. They didn't get their heads down, they practiced hard and it's something to build on."
Molly Willging paced Rhinelander with eight points and four rebounds. Kylie Hunter had seven points and seven rebounds. Syndei Smith had seven points and five rebounds. Sophomore Brianna Gilbert added four points and six boards in her first game of the season.
"Molly and Syd played their hearts out tonight, as did the rest of the girls," Jacobson. "It was nice to have Brianna Gilbert back on the floor. We noticed a definite rebounding presence with her. She's just going to get better as the season progresses."
The Hodags shot 31.4 percent from the field on 11-of-35 shooting. For the first time this season, Rhinelander finished with more points than turnovers, though it was close. Rhinelander was called for a three-second violation in the final minute of the game, its 29th turnover of the night, but Smith got a steal and a layup with less than 10 seconds remaining to give the Hodags 30 points.
"We could have made it a closer game, but I'll take this performance tonight," Jacobson said. "As they say, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' It's going to take some time, but this is definitely a step in the right direction."
Rhinelander will begin Great Northern Conference season Dec. 7 at Medford.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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