Trailing by double digits in the second half, an inexperienced Mauston team showed no signs of their youth.
The Golden Eagles (2-1) rallied back from a 14-point deficit and junior shooting guard Kyran Fitzgerald sunk a pair of free throws with 1.1 seconds left to outlast La Crosse Aquinas (3-1) 67-66 Monday, Dec. 4 in Mauston.
“This early in the season, to play a team that good and to have so many situations where you have to execute — sometimes there’s not enough practice to get to every little thing you have to do,” said Mauston head coach Gil Saylor. “I feel like my team has a little inexperience in just being in this situation. So for us to be in a close game where we had a chance to execute offensively and defensively in really pivotal situations — I was really proud of their composure throughout.”
The Blugolds looked the better of the two teams in the first half, taking a 36-24 lead into the locker room at the half. Mauston struggled on offense during the game’s opening 18 minutes, missing several open jumpers and shots right underneath the basket.
However, sophomore guard Cade Hall exploited a defensive mismatch and scored 15 points in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers, to keep the Golden Eagles in the game.
“On offense, we have guys that can make plays in all five spots,” Saylor said. “Because of the matchup, it was Cade’s turn. They sent the big out to Cade, I felt Cade had an advantage on the perimeter and he made that guy pay by getting to the basket, getting a couple good looks and getting him in foul trouble.”
In the second half, the shots finally started to fall for Mauston.
The Golden Eagles used a 31-16 run to come back from as much as 14 points behind to take a 57-54 lead. The Blugolds responded with an 8-2 run of their own to retake a 62-59 lead. Junior point guard Joe Bauer hit a three to once again tie it, but senior forward Jonathan Klauke buried a jumper on the ensuing Aquinas possession to put the Blugolds back ahead.
With his team leading by four with only 22.6 seconds remaining, junior guard Brandon Merfeld had an opportunity to ice the game for Aquinas at the free-throw line. However, Merfeld missed the front end of a one-and-one and Bauer, who scored 14 points in the second half, made another 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 66-65.
After the Blugolds missed another pair of free throws, Mauston got the ball back with 15 seconds left and a chance to win it.
On the ensuing possession, Bauer drove the baseline, drew a double team and dished the ball to an open Fitzgerald under the basket. Aquinas senior guard Nick Johnson fouled Fitzgerald on his shot attempt, sending him to the free-throw line with a chance to tie or take the lead with barely over a second remaining.
Fitzgerald sunk both, the Blugolds’ desperation heave from half-court was off the mark and the Golden Eagles escaped with a thrilling victory.
“While we were down 12 in the first half, we missed a lot of layups and we had some good shots that didn’t go,” Saylor said. “We got the same or similar shots in the second half, and they went.”
Hall and Bauer each scored 21 points to lead the way for Mauston. Aquinas had three players finish in double figures scoring: senior guard Conley Malone (18 points), freshman forward/guard Jared Everson (12) and Merfeld (10).
In a tightly officiated game, the Golden Eagles struggled from the charity stripe, making just 17 of their 33 free throws. Still, they attempted 15 more free throws than the Blugolds and Fitzgerald sunk the two most important ones of the game despite Mauston’s overall struggles.
The Golden Eagles play their second conference game Friday, Dec. 8 at 7:00 p.m. when they host the Nekoosa Papermakers (0-3 overall, 0-1 South Central).