GREEN BAY — One or two more Christmas cookies and maybe members of Beaver Dam’s prep boys basketball team would have been hanging their heads like stockings.
The margin was that thin.
But fortunately for them, what little holiday weight they may have added in the last week wasn’t enough to slow them to the point of defeat as a driving layup by Sam Wilke with 22 seconds remaining and Merrill’s ensuing empty possession gave the Golden Beavers the checkered flag — a 56-53 come-from-behind win over the Bluejays Thursday at the Kress Events Center on the UW-Green Bay campus.
Beaver Dam won despite an 18-5 disadvantage in free throw attempts in the non-conference game, part of the Sun Drop Shootout hosted by Shawano High School.
“We just stuck with it,” Beavers senior Connor Cullen said. “We were just not flowing that well offensively, but then we kind of kicked it in gear. And then we ended up clutching up on defense a couple times, too — a couple big stops.”
It was just the kind of game you’d expect following a nine-day Christmas layoff. This week always leaves coaches guessing as to what exactly they’re going to get from their teams.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Beaver Dam head coach Tim Ladron said. “But I think that’s part of the reason why you play it, too, is you’ve got to keep going; that’s why everybody in the state plays over the break, because you can’t take those two weeks off and then you’re back in the conference season and playing (big) games.
“I don’t think we played great today, but we survived. We were able to just sort of find a way to win, and that was big for our kids — they really haven’t played a tight game like this yet, and for our guys to finish the way they did was impressive.”
The finish saved the Golden Beavers (4-3) from getting run out of the gym by the Bluejays (4-5), who opened the second half on a 14-5 run to go in front 41-34 with 12 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the game.
“We couldn’t stop them for that stretch,” Ladron said. “And then defensively we got a lot better — we got some stops when we needed to — and we hit some big shots.
“Dillon (Livingston) hit a couple big mid-rangers and Sam hit a couple really big ones, and it seemed like everything started to snowball a little bit for us there and we got in a little bit of a rhythm.”
The Golden Beavers went on a 15-6 run that gave them a 49-47 lead with 4:23 to go.
That run was sparked by bench players Marshall McGauley and Kendrick Jimenez, whose buckets — on a pick-and-roll and a fastbreak layup — lifted Beaver Dam out of the 41-34 hole and saved things from slipping out of control.
Later, Wilke — who had seven points during the run — hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to tie things up at 47 and Livingston hit a pull-up jumper to give Beaver Dam the two-point lead.
But the real game-changer took place on the defensive end, where Beaver Dam switched things up in order to make the Bluejays’ leading scorers, Zach Mootz (25 points) and Quinn Steckbauer (9), work harder for their looks at the basket.
“Dillon and Sam did a nice job on them, facing them up, taking them kind of out of it,” Cullen said. “So we just forced the other guys to help (Mootz and Steckbauer) offensively, and they couldn’t really do much.”
Merrill scored only 12 points over the final 12:55. The Beavers held Mootz to a single free throw in that stretch, while Steckbauer mustered just three points.
“We did a better job of taking them away before they caught it,” Ladron said. “We were letting them catch it wherever they wanted to and then they’re good enough to make plays — (they) are really good players and they’re tough to keep in front of you. So we did a better job of making sure that it was tougher for them to catch it, and when they caught it was farther out on the perimeter.”
Cullen — who had 12 points, all in the first half, to go along with a team-best eight rebounds — hit a pair of 3s in the opening minutes to help Beaver Dam to a 10-0 lead. But Merrill punched right back, going on a 13-0 run to get back in the game.
It was basically tit for tat the rest of the way, with Wilke (23 points, 15 of them in the second half, to go along with five assists, three steals and three rebounds), Cullen (12 points) and Livingston (10 points) scoring 45 of the 56 points to help the Beavers hold up their end of the bargain.
The last two points — after Wilke’s go-ahead layup and then a missed 3 from the right corner by Jared Ollhoff with 7 seconds to go — weren’t scored by the three-headed monster, though.
The exclamation mark was punctuated by Kyle Gabel off the bench, as he ran a fly route, collected a long pass from Cullen stationed underneath Merrill’s basket, and made a buzzer-beating layup to provide the final margin.
“Kyle’s a good athlete, and he’s going to be an end-of-the-game guy for us because he’s a really good free throw shooter,” Ladron said. “It’s a tough spot for him because he hadn’t played at all the whole game, but he’s a good athlete.
“To send him long like that and let him go up and get it, it’s a play that he’s certainly capable of and he did a nice job.”
The Beavers followed up the game with a tour of Lambeau Field and then took in the UWGB men’s basketball team’s game vs. Detroit next door at the Resch Center. Beaver Dam plays Luxemberg-Casco in a Sun Drop Shootout game this afternoon at the Kress Center.
“Lambeau Field and the UWGB game we’re going to go to tonight — that all feels a little bit better with a W,” Ladron said. “So I’m proud of our guys — that was a battle.”
BEAVER DAM 56, MERRILL 53
Merrill 27 26 — 53
Beaver Dam 29 27 — 56
MERRILL (53) — Kade Bonnell 3, Quinn Steckbauer 9, Zach Mootz 25, Michael Casper 2, Chase Bonnell 2, Jared Ollhoff 8, Kordell Renken 4. TOTALS (FGM FTM-FTA PTS): 17 12-18 53.
BEAVER DAM (56) — Kendric Jimenez 2, Sam Wilke 23, Dillon Livingston 10, Kyle Gabel 2, Connor Cullen 12, Jordan Schwanke 2, Justin Douma 3, Marshall McGauley 2. TOTALS (FGM FTM-FTA PTS): 23 3-5 56.
3-pointers: Merrill 7 (Kade Bonnell 1, Quinn Steckbauer 1, Zach Mootz 4, Jared Ollhoff 1), Beaver Dam 7 (Sam Wilke 2, Connor Cullen 4, Justin Douma 1). Total fouls: Merrill 11, Beaver Dam 16.