COLUMBUS — Two and a half weeks ago Columbus’ prep boys basketball team was coming off a hard-fought loss to talented Marshall and hovering a game over .500, feeling like things were oh-so-close to falling in place but still trying to grab the 2019-20 season by the horns and take off.
The Cardinals aren’t trying any longer. They’re officially on a roll.
Senior Ryan Schulte’s 21 points — way more than his average of 5.5 per game — a big second-half run and composure down the stretch were the difference Thursday night as Columbus claimed a 66-50, Capitol North Conference win over Lodi in a match-up of the two remaining unbeaten teams in league play.
“It’s clicking,” Columbus coach Ben Schambow said. “They’re a special group because they’re so unselfish — they don’t care whose name comes up in the box score with the most points. They believe in each other and they believe in the system that we’re running, and we’re starting to figure out how to win in general.
“The ball is rolling right now and I hope it doesn’t stop.”
Schulte was the catalyst in this contest for Columbus (9-4, 4-0 Capitol North) as he scored 14 points in the first half — a dozen of them coming on four 3-pointers — to help the Cardinals go in front 33-23 at the break.
The 5-foot-9 guard had more in store in the second half.
With Lodi (10-5, 3-1) in the midst of a 6-0 run — one capped off by Jack Persike’s jumper from the left elbow with 4 minutes, 9 seconds gone by in the half — that trimmed the Cardinals’ lead down to 38-33, Schambow called timeout to try and stop the bleeding.
And he did just that.
“I won’t tell you what the name of the play is, but it was drawn up for Schulte,” Schambow said of a set that allowed Schulte to get to the basket for an and-one that made it 41-33. “Teams focus on (leading scorer) Ben (Emler) so much that other guys are getting opportunities to score because they’re not being double-teamed — Ben’s being double-teamed and they find themselves open, so that was drawn up for Ryan because Ryan was hot in the first half and we were just going to kind of ride him for a little bit and see what he could do.”
Caden Brunell followed up that possession with a 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 44-33 and just like that, the Cardinals were off and running on what turned into a 14-0 run that made it 52-33 with 8:28 to go in the game.
Emblematic of how the Cardinals played all night — they were balanced on offense, with Emler adding 20 points, Alex Campbell 13 and three others chipping in as well — the run saw scoring contributions from five different players.
“I keep going back to the unselfish factor,” Schambow said, “but they all know how to play their roles very well. Guys know if they’re open, to shoot it — and they know that if they score they’re going to take pressure off Ben, and then Ben’s going to be able to do his thing.
“Everybody that’s on the floor for us is very capable of scoring — we’ve shown that in the last couple games. Teams game plan a ton for us just to take Ben away, but I think we’re surprising people with different guys showing that they can score.”
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Lodi coach Mitch Hauser agreed with that sentiment.
“Really, I just thought Columbus played better,” he said. “The score tonight has more to do with Columbus and less to do with us. We play like this, a lot of nights we win by 10. But tonight, against this team, they played well — they shot it well and they’re disciplined. Ben is a hell of a coach — underrated in the state of Wisconsin. Columbus is good — they’re good.”
That certainly showed last Friday in the Cardinals’ 63-57 win over Lake Mills, at the time the No. 7 team in Division 3 according to the Associated Press and No. 10 in D3 according to the WisSports.net coaches poll
And there was no letdown in this one.
“We know what this conference has brought in the past for us and we’re sick of finishing where we’ve been finishing,” Schambow said of taking fifth in the six-team league each of the last two years, both times with 3-7 records. “These guys are just all about winning, it doesn’t matter how they do it. Lake Mills was a huge confidence builder but we’ve won nine of our last 10 games (after starting 0-3), so I think the snowball has been getting bigger and bigger and bigger for us, and the confidence has been building every day in practice and every game.
“I don’t think they’re content right now just because we are in first place in conference — I think they want to keep on rolling.”
Lodi was able to whittle Columbus’ 19-point lead down to eight when Trey Traeder canned a 3 with 2:10 to go that made it 56-48, but the Cardinals weren’t rattled and went eight-of-10 at the free throw line down the stretch to salt the game away.
They put an exclamation mark on the victory with Emler’s fastbreak lay-up with 16 seconds to go that provided for the final points of the contest.
“We’re a headstrong team,” Schambow said. “We have a lot of seniors who play a lot of minutes — they’ve been through the battles before.”
“And we’ve got somebody like Alex Campbell who is lightning quick and is difficult to contain, even with two guys. That’s not coaching — that’s just athleticism on his part that he can split those guys,” Schambow added of Campbell handling Lodi’s full-court trap in the final minutes. “We’re a composed team — we talk about poise every single day and playing basketball our way, not adapting to what the other team wants us to do. And they’ve bought into that 100 percent.”
For his team’s part, Hauser said the Blue Devils did OK playing from behind in the first half but eventually strayed from their principles on offense as the Cardinals kept their foot on the gas.
“What happens when we (allow) those runs and we don’t get answers, we have a tendency to rush — we have a tendency in games like that to play ‘hero ball’ where we try and do too much in one possession and don’t really get a great shot,” he said.
Still, Hauser is confident in the direction Lodi is headed.
“Hopefully we’re tougher and more seasoned,” he said of growing from the loss. “We’ve got our work cut out for us — we’ve got a tough one on Tuesday (against Lake Mills, now ranked ninth by the AP and unranked in the coaches poll) —but these guys are resilient and we expect to be a factor.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.
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