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April 2, 2020

Rhinelander’s Peyton Erikson is fouled by Merrill’s Caleb Timm during the second half of a non-conference boys’ basketball game at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium Tuesday, Feb. 18. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Peyton Erikson is fouled by Merrill’s Caleb Timm during the second half of a non-conference boys’ basketball game at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium Tuesday, Feb. 18. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
2/20/2020 7:30:00 AM
Merrill heats up late, races by Hodags 74-64

There is a distinct possibility that the Rhinelander High School boys' basketball team could face Merrill again in the WIAA tournament. If so, the Hodags will need to play better defense than they did on Tuesday night.

Michael Casper scored a game-high 24 points and the Bluejays got hot from distance, connecting on 8 of 11 second-half 3-point attempts, as they pulled away to a 74-64 win over the Hodags Tuesday night at the Jim Miazga Community Gymnasium.

Up two with 8:18 to play, Merrill used a 15-1 run over the next four minutes to essentially put the contest out of reach. The run included a pair of triples by Casper, Merrill's leading scorer, who was a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc in the second half.

"Teams sure decide to shoot the 3 well against us," Rhinelander coach Derek Lemmens said. "This game was about rhythm and we gave them rhythm shots. We can't do that. We've got to improve."

Opposing teams came in to the night shooting 35% from deep against the Hodags and averaging 6.3 triples a game. Merrill did not do Rhinelander's defensive statistics any favors, going 13 of 25 from 3-point range Tuesday night.

Tied at 30 at halftime, a 3 by Casper less than a minute into the second half gave Merrill the lead for good. The Bluejays twice led by six early in the second, but for the Hodags made a push to cut it to one on two separate occasions.

Merrill (15-5, 7-4 Wis. Valley) began its decisive run with an Isaac Sutton basket, followed by a Casper 3. Nathan Woller then scored on a left baseline drive, and again in transition off a Rhinelander (7-12, 5-6 Great Northern) miss to make it 60-49 with 6:17 remaining. After Drake Martin made a free throw, Casper and Connor Mootz made back-to-back 3s to push Merrill's lead to 66-50.

"It happened quick. Defensively, I don't think we were very good tonight. Just positioning off ball, communication, vision, those were all things that we just (were lacking)," Lemmens said. "Even in the first half we survived a couple misses on some of our mental lapses. All things that we can improve on but, tonight, we just defensively weren't consistent enough. We did good things offensively, only seven turnovers, but you've got to not give a team like that an opportunity to get a rhythm, because that's what happens."

Rhinelander led by seven in the early stages of the first half, but Merrill responded with a quick 8-0 burst to take a 14-13 lead. The teams traded the lead four times in the first half before settling for a 30-all tie at the break.

Merrill nearly had five players in double digits as it shot 48.1% (26 of 54) on the night. Woller had 15 points. Caleb Timm added 11 points and 10 rebounds while Sutton and Mootz finished with nine points each.

Rhinelander had a 25-9 edge in bench scoring Tuesday night, led by a 15-point effort from reserve forward Travis Towne.

"He's being more aggressive. He's finishing instead of fading and he's really hitting the offensive glass hard too," Lemmens said of Towne's night. "He's kind of finding his early-season self again. He had a little mid-season slump but now he's starting to get some confidence back and we're going to need him moving forward."

Martin also had 15 for Rhinelander, which shot 46.8 percent (22 of 47). Jacksen Smith added 10 points off the bench and Ross Skeen had nine points. Quinn Lamers, the team's leading scorer, was held to seven points as he made only one of his first 10 field goal attempts.

With the coaches set to seed the WIAA tournament bracket on Sunday, Merrill appears to be in good position to vie for the No. 2 seed, while wins over Lakeland and Antigo last week have Rhinelander in good shape to argue for the seven seed. Should that hold true, and Rhinelander wins its playoff opener, the Hodags and Bluejays would meet again in the regional semifinals.

Lemmens said he filed some notes away for a potential playoff rematch.

"These guys, they know that, number one we can play with this team," he said. "We can compete with this team. We aren't healthy. We've got two starters that weren't at practice yesterday or school and I didn't think we played great basketball tonight. To lose by 10 to what I think is a pretty good team when we're playing very lukewarm basketball. That says, if we can bring it and play a little harder and be a little more competitive next time around, we can be right there."

Rhinelander plays its last home game of the regular season tomorrow night at home against Tomahawk, looking to keep two streaks intact. Rhinelander has never finished worse than fourth in the Great Northern Conference and has never finished below .500 in league play.

"It's the final game of the conference season and a chance to go .500, which is something we definitely want to do. There's a lot of motivation to play hard and get ready for Friday," Lemmens said.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at jeremy@rivernewsonline.com.





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