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RANDOLPH — Opportunities certainly weren’t in short supply for Rio’s boys basketball team down the stretch Thursday night. The Vikings just couldn’t take advantage.

And that meant Randolph — especially the coaching staff, as it turns out — could breathe a big sigh of relief.

Rio went 0-for-2 at the free throw line with a chance to tie or take the lead with 40 seconds remaining, missed a game-tying 3-point attempt with 5 seconds left and then threw the ball away on an in-bounds play still down three with 1 second to go.

And that allowed the Rockets — ranked third in Division 5 according to the Associated Press and fourth according to the WisSports.net coaches poll — to escape with a 55-52 victory in a match-up of the two top teams in the Trailways West Conference.

“I told the guys we might need to send us coaches into the heart clinic over there in Beaver Dam, because they were hard on us there in the last 30 seconds,” Rockets coach Tyler Fischer said of dodging those three bullets in the final minute.

First, though, Randolph (10-0, 5-0 in conference) had to assume command after Rio (8-2, 4-1) used a 12-3 run — with eight of the points coming from junior Pierson Schneider, six of them on a pair of 3s — to go in front 49-45 with 4:45 remaining.

A free throw by Peyton Moldenhauer would make it 49-46 and then a 3 by Brayden Haffele — his third of the half en route to a game-best 17 points on the night — tied things up at 49 with 3:24 left.

The Rockets then took a 53-49 lead with 2:17 left on back-to-back baskets inside by Travis Alvin and Jake Roberts before barely surviving after the Vikings missed on their chances down the stretch.

Still, it was a valiant upset bid by Rio, which entered ranked 11th in D-5 in the AP poll.

“A couple costly turnovers and some missed free throws,” Rio coach Tim Struck said. “But at the end of the day, I’m proud of my kids — they fought.”

Indeed the Vikings did. But it wasn’t enough, thanks in large part to the Rockets’ defense.

In particular, thanks to their defense on Rio’s talented duo of Brandon Rowe and Nathan Rippl, who came in with respective scoring averages of 22.4 and 21 points per game but finished with 13 and nine apiece.

Making that effort more impressive is the fact the Rockets had to call on Alvin, a 6-foot-3 freshman, to do a lion’s share of the work on the 6-5 Ripp after 6-8 senior Seth Cupery was injured in the first minute of the game and couldn’t return.

“That’s not an easy match-up — (Rippl is) a strong, physical kid — and I thought Travis did a very good job,” Fischer said.

Still, it was defense late that made the biggest difference as Rio was held to only three points over the final 4:45.

“We were scrappy everywhere — everyone was on the ground,” Haffele said of the extra grit his team exhibited late.

“We played as a team — it was probably one of our better performances as a team,” he added of the effort as a whole.

And it paid off in the end.

“We keep stressing getting stops and boards because you can’t make a run if you’re still giving up buckets on the other end, so I thought overall defensively the guys did (well),” Fischer said of closing out on an 8-3 run to win the game.

“They were resilient, and their clutch gene today apparently came in handy,” Struck added. “They hit some big shots and we couldn’t answer all the time. Hats off to them, they did a nice job.”

The Rockets landed the first blow in the conference race. The two teams will meet again in Rio on Feb. 12 — and with all but Fall River (4-1) having at least two losses in conference thus far, that rematch in a month could go a long way toward deciding the champion.

“That should be another fun one,” Struck said.

RANDOLPH 55, RIO 52< /&hspag3>

Rio 25 27 — 52

Randolph 28 27 — 55

RIO (52) — (fgm ftm-fta pts) J. Rowe 4 0-0 9, Bright 1 0-0 3, B. Rowe 3 5-6 13, Rippl 4 1-9 9, Schneider 5 0-0 13, Richardson 2 0-0 5. Totals 19 6-15 52.

RANDOLPH (55) — (fgm ftm-fta pts) Haffele 6 1-1 17, Westra 3 1-2 7, Roberts 2 0-0 6, Moldenhauer 4 1-2 12, Kohn 2 0-0 4, Alvin 4 1-2 9. Totals 21 4-7 55.

3-pointers: Rio 8 (J. Rowe 1, Bright 1, B. Rowe 2, Schneider 3, Richardson 1), Rand 9 (Haffele 4, Roberts 2, Moldenhauer 3). Total fouls: RAN 13, R 11. Fouled out: Rio — Rippl. Rand — None.

+3 
Jake Roberts

Randolph's Jake Roberts (middle) weaves his way to the basket between Rio's Brandon Rowe (left) and Jacob Rowe (right) during the second half of the Rockets' 55-52 win over the Vikings on Thursday night in a Trailways West Conference game played at Randolph High School.

+3 
Travis Alvin

Randolph's Travis Alvin (right) passes out of the post as Rio's Nathan Rippl defends during the second half of the Rockets' 55-52 win over Rio on Thursday night in a Trailways West Conference game played at Randolph High School.

+3 
Peyton Moldenhaur

Randolph's Peyton Moldenhaur looks to pass from the top of the key during the second half of the Rockets' 55-52 win over Rio on Thursday night in a Trailways West Conference game played at Randolph High School.

+3 
Sawyer Westra

Randolph's Sawyer Westra attempts a jumper during the second half of the Rockets' 55-52 win over Rio on Thursday night in a Trailways West Conference game played at Randolph High School.

RANDOLPH 55, RIO 52</&hspag3>

Rio 25 27 — 52

Randolph 28 27 — 55

RIO (52) — (fgm ftm-fta pts) J. Rowe 4 0-0 9, Bright 1 0-0 3, B. Rowe 3 5-6 13, Rippl 4 1-9 9, Schneider 5 0-0 13, Richardson 2 0-0 5. Totals 19 6-15 52.

RANDOLPH (55) — (fgm ftm-fta pts) Haffele 6 1-1 17, Westra 3 1-2 7, Roberts 2 0-0 6, Moldenhauer 4 1-2 12, Kohn 2 0-0 4, Alvin 4 1-2 9. Totals 21 4-7 55.

3-pointers: Rio 8 (J. Rowe 1, Bright 1, B. Rowe 2, Schneider 3, Richardson 1), Rand 9 (Haffele 4, Roberts 2, Moldenhauer 3). Total fouls: RAN 13, R 11. Fouled out: Rio — Rippl. Rand — None.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Danny_Larson_8 or contact him at 920-356-6753.

Assistant Regional Sports Editor

Capital Newspapers Assistant Regional Sports Editor