Though down their starting point guard, the Ellsworth Panthers managed a 70-52 win over the Amery Warriors in their first 2018 playoff game.
The Panthers (No. 3, 19-4) were led in scoring by senior Drake Flom who recorded 25 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one steal in his final game at Ellsworth High School on Friday, March 2.
"Coming off that home floor one last time was all smiles for me," Flom said of the court he and his team went 9-1 on this season. "I left it all out there, and felt proud of the way I performed tonight. I won't forget this group of guys and what we did for our home fans this year."
Logan Benson added 20 to the Panthers' 70 total points, and shot 8-for-10 from the field.
"I thought we played decent, but just had too many turnovers," Benson said, "but if we take care of the ball, we're hard to stop."
Benson said fellow junior Lange's absence on the floor was apparent.
"[Lange] brings another really good passing and dribbling aspect to our team, and that showed tonight," Benson said. "With him out, we will just have to adjust a little bit and have some guys step up and fill their roles better than ever."
Scoring for the Panthers: Flom 25; Benson 20; Logan Richards 8; Alex Motley 6; Mason Anderson 4; Isaac Galle 3; Cole Woodland, Zach Nugent 2.
Ellsworth 63, Bloomer 42
Just as Benson prophesied, he and his teammates assumed their new, heavier roles against the Bloomer Blackhawks, which allowed for them to become regional finals champions on Saturday, March 3 without starter Lange.
Lange also took on his new sideline responsibilities to the best of his abilities.
"Against Bloomer he was fantastic on the bench helping his teammates and talking to them as they were coming off the floor," Ellsworth's head coach Tim Dahl said. "Just a phenomenal job."
Lange just found out on Thursday, March 1 that he did break his tibia and has no chance of returning to the 2018 season.
"I told him how much we're going to miss him, but he's got a new role to fill now and he did it really well on Saturday," Dahl said.
The Blackhawks felt Ellsworth and Lange's pain of playing without a starter as they too played shorthanded without their leading scorer, Payton Dachel, who was out with appendicitis.
"Without Dachel, I think they kind of struggled at manufacturing points," Dahl said.
Dachel's absence played a large part in the Panthers getting of to a 30-15 lead at half, but so did Cole Woodland's defense.
"We put Cole on one of their best outside shooters and he did a fantastic job of shadowing him, not letting him get a shot off," Dahl said. Woodland recorded six points, one steal and one assist in the regional finals game.
"Bloomer was forced to go to their second, maybe third or fourth options, and they just didn't shoot very well in the first half, but Cole had a lot to do with it."
Offensively, the Panthers tried to slow things down in the second half, which Dahl said "was strange for us."
"Usually we're going helter skelter, we're trying to score as fast as we can, but Alex did a phenomenal job for us."
Alex Motley, Ellsworth's leading scorer, became Ellsworth's designated point guard with Lange no longer an option, and Dahl felt as though Motley rose to the occasion with his new assignment.
"He's expected to put the ball in the basket and now he's expected to bring the ball up the floor all of the time instead of some of the time," Dahl said. "So, that's a big difference for him."
Motley finished with 13 points, five rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block against the Blackhawks.
Benson led the Panthers in scoring with 19 points, and added 11 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and one block to his statline. Flom finished with 14 points, seven rebounds, two steals and one assist.
As they advance to the sectional semifinals, the Panthers will try to carry on their aforementioned slowed-down offense in their semifinals game against the Prescott Cardinals (22-2) who defeated the Saint Croix Central Panthers (16-8) 59-56 on Saturday night.
Ellsworth was unable to contend with the Cardinals in their most recent meeting on Feb. 20 when Prescott put up 120 points in their 37-point victory.
"Last time we played [Prescott] we tried to play their uptempo style and proved that we weren't quite ready to take that next step," Dahl said. "We're going to try something a little different Thursday night, and hopefully we'll have more success with it. We'll probably watch some of the film from our first matchup. I'd just assume burn the film of the second game."
The Panthers are coming into Thursday, March 8's Division 2 WIAA Sectional 1 semifinals game with a clean slate, and will work in the days to come to forget about their previous matchups with Prescott, the team that's handed them two of their four regular season losses this year.
"Our guys are playing pretty confidently right now," Dahl said. "I think they know what they have to do. It's a matter of if we can handle Prescott's pressure and perform how we have to."
The Panthers are ready to perform in another high-intensity atmosphere just as they did at Bloomer.
"Last night we had a tremendous showing from our fans up in Bloomer," Dahl said. "It was crazy, they were loud, they were cheering, and that kind of pumped the boys up. We'll use that too Thursday night."
Tip-off for the Thursday, March 8 sectional game between the Panthers and Cardinals is scheduled for 7 p.m. at New Richmond High School. Don't miss your chance to watch two of the best teams in western Wisconsin compete one last time this year.
Scoring for the Panthers against Bloomer: Benson 19, Flom 14, Motley 13, Richards 7, Woodland 6, Zugent 4.