By Steve Pilz
For Zaleski Sports
NEILLSVILLE - In a game that saw both teams have trouble scoring, the Neillsville Warriors stamped their ticket to next week’s sectional by downing the visiting Stratford Tigers 38-36 in a WIAA Division 3 boys basketball regional final on Saturday night at Neillsville High School.
The outcome came down to the last shot of the game.
Stratford’s Camden Daul hit a 10-foot jumper with less than a minute and half to play to give Stratford its first lead of the night at 36-35. It had been an uphill battle for the Tigers, who struggled mightily from behind the arc making just 4 of 27 3-pointers.
Neillsville’s Drew Brown, who led all scorers with 17 points, erased the meager lead on the next trip down when he hit a lay-in with 57 seconds remaining.
After a Tigers’ turnover, Neillsville was able to kill 20 more seconds before Santana Subke was fouled. He made the first in the bonus but missed the second, giving the Warriors a two-point lead.
Stratford came down for the final shot, but Brown batted the cross-court pass away giving the Tigers one more look with 4.4 remaining.
After a timeout, Stratford got an open look from 3-point range, but like many before it on this night, it caromed away, giving Neillsville the win.
“As a program, the last few years, we have run a lot,” Neillsville coach Mike Gaier said. “This year we’ve run a lot less because of our personnel. We’ve gone from a guard-heavy set to having two bigs that can really play. We’ve learned to slow the game down a bit. I thought our kids did a really good job against a very good Stratford team.
“Braden (Trunkel) and Drew (Brown) saw a lot of triangle-and-two defenses earlier in the year and it forced some of the other guys to make some plays. It’s helped their confidence and it showed tonight.”
The Warriors built a 10-point lead in the first half behind the strength of 10 points by Mason Roenz. The burly 6-foot-5 junior proved a force around the hoop. He joined Brown as the only other Warrior in double digits, finishing with 13.
The Tigers chipped away in the second half, aided by 11 Neillsville turnovers, but they couldn’t quite get the ball to drop, a fact not lost on their coach.
“First off, I’m just really proud of the kids,” said Tigers coach Curt Schmidt. “Last night we shot like 62 percent and 52 percent from three (in a win over Colby), and tonight we couldn’t buy a bucket from outside. The fact that we had a one- point lead with a little more than a minute to play is absolutely remarkable. We just unfortunately turned it over after that. We had the look at the end from one of our best shooters, it just didn’t go.
“I thought we had a great season. With the quarantine and a lot of uncertainty, it was trying at times. These guys got better and made some great progress. I’m proud of them. I loved coaching them. They were a dream to coach.”
Daul and Jacob Skroch were the only tigers in double figures, with 14 and 10 respectively, as Stratford ends its season with a 14-9 record.
Neillsville (16-5) moves on to a Division 3 sectional semifinal Thursday at St. Croix Central (21-2).
Warriors 38, Tigers 36
Stratford 15 21 - 36
Neillsville 20 18 - 38
STRATFORD (36): Cody Miller 2 0-0 6, Cade Bruesewitz 2 0-0 6, Jacob Skroch 3 4-7 10, Camden Daul 7 0-0 14. FG: 14-50. FT: 4-7. 3-pointers 4-27 (Miller 2, Bruesewitz 2). Turnovers: 10. Fouled out: none. Record: 14-9.
NEILLSVILLE (38): Braden Trunkel 1 5-6 7, Drew Brown 6 3-3 17, Mason Roenz 6 1-2 13, Santana Subke 0 1-4 1. FG: 13-33. FT: 10-15. 3-pointers: 2-14 (Brown 2). Turnovers: 15. Fouled out: none. Record: 16-5.