MERRILL - Message to opponents of the Rhinelander High School boys' basketball team - the Hodags have more than one way they can beat you.
With Rhinelander trailing by two in the fourth quarter Tuesday, everyone in the Merrill High School fieldhouse was waiting for RHS senior forward Shane White to take over. Instead it was another senior who came alive. Brett Mathews scored all 12 of his points in the final 4 minutes and 34 seconds of the contest as the Hodags rallied for a 56-47 victory over the Merrill Bluejays.
With White drawing the attention of Merrill's best player, 6-9 forward David Jesperson, Mathews was open for several easy layups down the stretch.
"Brett did a great job," RHS boys' basketball coach Derek Lemmens said. "It's about matchups. Shane draws their biggest guy and that opens things up for (Brett)."
Mathews said something clicked for the Hodag offense in the final quarter.
"In the first half, our offense was just weird," he said. "I don't even think we were running anything. In the fourth quarter we figured it out. Shane was pulling out to the free throw line, which opened up the lane. I just kept back-cutting my guy and the guards found me underneath."
Mathews first layup, off a Colton Volkmann assist, tied the game 41-41 with 4:34 to play. After an empty trip down the floor for Merrill (0-3, 0-1 Wisconsin Valley), Volkmann and Mathews hooked up again, giving the Hodags (3-0, 0-0 Great Northern) the lead for good despite having been behind during much of the second and third quarters.
When Jesperson hit a 3-pointer with 2:53 remaining to cut Rhinelander's lead to 48-45, the Hodags went right back to Mathews who made back-to-back baskets to give Rhinelander a seven-point lead.
Merrill came within five points in the final minute, but Volkmann hit both ends of a one-and-one and Brad Kenote made a layup off of a steal to account for the final margin of victory.
Rhinelander started the game hot, racing to a 9-0 lead and forcing Merrill to burn a timeout just 2:15 into the game. But Jesperson hit a couple of threes and the Hodags committed six of their 13 turnovers for the contest in the first eight minutes, allowing the Bluejays to crawl back into the game. A Paul Theorin 3-pointer at the buzzer tied the game at 15 after one quarter.
Jesperson got the first points of the second quarter on an offensive putback, giving Merrill its first lead of the game. The Bluejays extended the lead to seven points before Rhinelander made a couple of baskets down the stretch to trail 29-26 at halftime.
"They played well," Lemmens said of the Bluejays. "Especially early, I felt that they shot very well and they kind of put us on our heels a little bit."
"We fell asleep about four times and four times we paid. Early on, we just had some lapses and they made us pay for that. It's kind of frustrating, because that's what we were working on - to not have those (lapses)," he added.
The Hodags trailed much of the third quarter, but made a push with 2:10 remaining to take a 36-35 lead thanks to a White layup. Jesperson hit a pair of free throws with 35 seconds left in the quarter to give Merrill a one-point advantage, but Brad Kenote hit one of two free throws with seven seconds left to tie the game 37-37 heading to the fourth.
Merrill retook the lead with 7:10 remaining on another Theorin 3-ball. Volkmann cut their lead to one, scoring a basket with 5:03 remaining, before Mathews went to work.
Four Hodags hit double-digits with White's 15 points leading the way. Volkmann added 14 points and Kenote had 10 to go along with Mathews' fourth-quarter explosion.
"I like how even we are and we have a lot of threats," Lemmens said. "That's one of our advantages as a team, we have a lot of guys who can get the job done."
The Hodags shot 46 percent from the field on 22-of-48 shooting. Merrill was 18-of-39 from the field (46 percent) and stuck around thanks to seven 3-point baskets. Jesperson led all scorers with 21 points, and unofficially added 10 rebounds.
Rhinelander won its first two games of the season by 19 and 27 points, respectively, and was not tested in the second half of either game. Mathews said there was no panic on the bench while Rhinelander was trailing Tuesday.
"We were just going to keep playing hard," he said. "We just were not clicking and I think we knew eventually we would turn it on and we did. I think we were pretty confident throughout."
Lemmens said Tuesday's tough non-conference contest against a former Wisconsin Valley Conference foe should serve the team well as it gets ready to open the GNC season Friday at home against Medford.
"This is great experience," he said. "It shows us what we have as a group. That's a senior group out there. We have the type of guys that just wait for the opportunities. They are very patient and that comes with experience."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce