Boys' basketball: Panthers play rejuvenated against Tigers
Ellsworth senior co-captain Erik Lange compared his team's gameless first full week of February to the National Basketball Association's All-Star break.
"It kind of gets you out of your groove, but it's also kind of like the All-Star break in the NBA," Lange said. "You get a little refresher and you get to work on yourself. Whether you're on a winning streak or a losing streak, I feel like the playing field just evens out. As much as it sucked to not play games, it was kind of nice to regroup and work on ourselves and the team as a whole."
After regrouping, the Panthers (12-6, 9-3) completed a 3-0 week with their most recent win coming on Saturday, Feb. 16, when they defeated the New Richmond Tigers (12-8, 10-2) by a 69-63 margin. Rising stars were showcased, there were players worthy of 3-point contest entries and both teams put together All-Star-team-like performances as they earned contributions from several players.
"Whenever you play a team like this, you always give a little extra," Lange said. "We all knew we had to step up tonight, and everyone was locked in tonight."
The Tigers served the Panthers their first conference loss back in January, but the Panthers responded on Saturday night by outrebounding their guests and breaking down the Tigers' defense, which head coach Jordan Peterson regarded with high acclaim.
"They're probably the best defensive team in the conference, I think anyway," Peterson said. "We were just being disciplined with reversals and paint touches."
The Panthers started off settling for floaters and fadeaways at the rim against the Tigers' wall-like interior defense, but used quick kick-outs, strong dribble penetration and hot perimeter shooting to challenge their guests. Ivan Mendez and Mason Anderson both hit two 3-pointers in the first half, and Anderson added two second-half 3s to complete his game-high 23-point scoring night.
"It's been a growing process for Mason, Ivan, Shane and our bench players to evolve their game," Peterson said. "Mason is known for his 3-point shooting, but he's been able to expand his game."
When Anderson wasn't spotting up for treys, he was driving to the hoop and getting to the free-throw line where he shot 5-for-6. Logan Benson led the Panthers at the line, making 16 of his 18 attempts.
Defensively, the Panthers applied pressure throughout the night and forced the Tigers to slow down their half-court offense while dominating on the boards. New Richmond finished with one offensive rebound in the first half.
The Panthers took a 33-21 lead before halftime after Woodland made a perfect defensive rotation to contest a Tiger 3-point shot and was rewarded with a fastbreak layup. They held onto a double-digit lead for most of the second half as Benson earned six trips to the free-throw line and the entire Ellsworth team refused to let up on their applied pressure.
However, the Panthers were faced with adversity with just under four minutes to play when Benson recorded his fifth foul and was sent to the bench permanently.
"I was just kind of like, 'whatever,' when I fouled out, but these guys finished it out," Benson said.
Anderson, Mendez, Woodland and Erik and Shane Lange played the final three minutes, 55 seconds of the game and all made game-changing plays.
Erik Lange stripped the ball from a New Richmond player with 2:26 to go before completing an old-fashioned 3-point play to give the Panthers an eight-point lead. On the next possession, Shane Lange took a charge against Joey Kidder, drawing the New Richmond junior's fifth foul of the night.
Anderson and Mendez both made trips to the charity stripe, while Woodland took on the team's defensive leadership role with Benson on the bench. However, the senior co-captain didn't take the credit for his team's ability to finish the game shorthanded.
"It just goes back to those underclassmen," Woodland said. "They just stepped up and helped fill Logan's role. It feels pretty good knowing they're able to step up, and having them perform like this was a good feeling for all three of us."
"Even when we leave next year, these guys are going to still be good because they're just solid," senior Lange added.
The complete, team win was exactly what the Panthers needed after their break and prior to their WIAA Division 2 playoff run. The Panthers received a No. 4 seed in Sectional 1 and will face Osceola in their first playoff game on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
Per usual, the Panthers aren't concerned with their seeding, their opponent or how many home games they'll have in their playoff run.
"We'll have to go through everyone at some point to get to where we want to be anyway," Woodland said. "We're excited to be underdogs."
"It's kind of what we expected to get going in," Peterson said. "In the playoffs, it's a one game series, and we're going to have to beat really good teams. It doesn't matter if we're going to have to do it at home or on the road. If we play like we did tonight, we're going to be able to compete with anyone."
The Panthers will complete their regular season on Thursday, Feb. 21, when they host the Prescott Cardinals (16-4, 9-3). They'll honor their seniors on Monday, Feb. 18, prior to their home game against the Amery Warriors (4-16, 3-9).
Scoring for Ellsworth: Anderson 23; Benson 22; E. Lange, Mendez 10; Woodland 4