COLUMBUS — Alex Campbell admitted on Saturday night that he was pretty frustrated at halftime. He had gone scoreless in the first half, his Columbus prep boys basketball team trailed Laconia 26-22 in the Division 3 regional championship game and the realization that his high school basketball career could be over in 18 minutes weighed heavily on the senior guard’s mind.
“I didn’t have the greatest first half. I thought I was playing a little bit out of my element,” Campbell said. “So, I picked myself up, got with the team. We had a good pep talk at halftime and we came out with a lot of fire.”
For Campbell, it was more like a blow torch. He lit up the scoreboard, scoring a team-high 18 points over the final 18 minutes as second-seeded Columbus advanced to sectionals for the second straight year with a 60-55 victory over the third-seeded and ultra scrappy Spartans.
Campbell opened the second half with six straight points on a 3-pointer followed by an old-fashion three-point play. Ben Emler’s basket at the 16-minute mark capped the Cardinals’ rally, giving them a 30-29 lead and setting up a see-saw affair that saw the Spartans match their biggest lead of the game, 39-35, when junior Caden Wittchow, who would finish with 15 points, hit a basket with 12:20 to play.
Columbus (16-8) closed the gap to 39-38 when the game took an ominous turn for the Cardinals as Emler, a senior and the team’s leading scorer on the season, picked up his fourth foul and had to leave the contest with 11:03 remaining.
Despite the loss of the 6-5 forward, Campbell said there was no panic on the Columbus bench.
“Ben’s been our guy the whole season. But the good thing about this team is that when Ben gets doubled or is out other guys step up and that’s what happened tonight,” he said.
Columbus didn’t miss a beat. Junior Caden Brunell’s basket with 10:36 left put Columbus back on top, 40-39. After the Spartans responded and grabbed a 43-40 advantage with 9:07 to play, Campbell and Co. took control, going on a 9-2 run with Campbell accounting for five points as the Cardinals went ahead 49-45 with 6:16 to play.
It would be a lead they would never relinquish — though Laconia (15-9) did get within one, 49-48, with six minutes to play.
“I’ll tell you what, we persevered all year,” Columbus coach Ben Schambow said. “We weren’t projected to do much this season but these guys believed in each other, they believed in the system and we had some seniors step up big time tonight.”
Emler returned to the contest with 4:36 to play and Laconia would close the gap to two at 57-55 on a 3 by senior Reed Gunnink with 1:09 to play. Those would turn out to be the Spartans’ final points of the game.
Emler, who would finish the game with 16 points, gave Columbus some breathing room with two free throws with 46.7 seconds to play. It also allowed him to breathe a bit more easily.
“My teammates did a great job of holding it down while I was out. I’m so happy,” Emler said. “Connor Schroeder came in and stepped up and Will (Cotter) stepped up filling the big man spot. We were able to extend the lead while I was out and when I came back in we got the job done.”
The Cardinals came up huge defensively in the final minute, which included steals by Cotter on two consecutive possessions.
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“I’m super happy with the leadership we showed, the intensity that we showed and that we didn’t have any letdown,” Schambow said. “It was an extremely fun game to coach and I’m super happy to be their coach.”
Campbell was 8-for-10 from the free-throw line and Columbus as a team hit on 18 of 26 tries.
“Emler getting in foul trouble is never a good thing but what it did was open up their defense a bit because they couldn’t just concentrate on one guy,” Schambow said. “They spread out and it gave Alex Campbell some penetration lanes. … He is one of the quicker players that I have ever had. He made some good decisions … hit his free throws and stepped up as a leader tonight.”
The final buzzer set off a wild celebration as players, family and fans lingered on the floor long after the trophy presentation.
“This win means everything,” said Emler, who as a result will have another chance to add to his total as the Cardinals’ all-time leading scorer. “Last year, I think it was 28 years since Columbus had won a regional championship and now it’s two in a row. It feels great. I love playing in this gym and I love playing in front of these fans. And it’s so special that in my last game here we get that plaque.”
The Spartans’ Gunnink led all scorers with 19 points, including 12 in the first half. Eli Leonard added 16 for Laconia.
Brunell finished with 10 points for the Cardinals, eight coming in the first half.
Second-seeded Columbus will now face top-seeded Waupun (16-8) in the sectional semifinals on Thursday night. The Cardinals lost to the Warriors, 76-53, in the season opener back in November.
“These guys definitely deserve (to advance) and hopefully we’ll come up with different results than last year,” Schambow said of last season’s 79-36 loss to in the sectional semifinals to eventual state runner-up Waupun.
Campbell echoed his coach’s remarks. “We were there last year and it didn’t go as we planned. But this year we’re coming in with a different mentality and we’re looking to go a long way.”
COLUMBUS 60, LACONIA 55</&hspag3>
Laconia 26 29 — 55
Columbus 22 38 — 60
WAUTOMA (fg ftm-fta pts) — Caden Wittchow 4 7-7 15, Reed Gunnink 5 7-7 19, Eli Leonard 6 1-2 16, Dawson Drews 2 1-2 5. Totals: 17 16-18 55.
COLUMBUS — Ryan Schulte 1 2-2 4, Alex Campbell 4 8-10 18, Will Cotter 2 2-6 6, Mason Carthew 1 0-0 2, Caden Brunell 4 0-0 10, Connor Schroeder 2 0-0 4, Ben Emler 5 6-8 16. Totals: 19 18-26 60.