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WEST SALEM — In a different year, this Royall team would have likely captured a conference title and had a reasonably clear path to a sectional final.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they happened to be stuck in the same conference and same sectional as arguably the best team in Bangor boys basketball history.

Bangor (24-1) cruised past Royall (21-5) to a 75-50 win in their Division 5 sectional semifinal matchup Thursday, March 8 at West Salem High School. With the win, the Cardinals advanced to their third consecutive sectional final.

“Obviously you never want your season to end, (especially) when you have the seniors we did and how it ended,” said Royall head coach Scott Uppena. “But Bangor’s a good team. They’re No. 1 in the state for a reason. We knew it was going to have to be a game that we played extremely well, shot extremely well and played with a lot of energy.”

“I don’t want to say it had to be flawless, but it had to be close to that, and tonight wasn’t that night.”

The early stages of the game were a back-and-forth affair, featuring seven lead changes and a tie over the first eight minutes. The Panthers jumped out to a 7-2 lead, fueled by seven early points courtesy of senior small forward Seth Brown, before the two teams traded the lead a half-dozen times.

However, after Royall took an 11-10 lead, Bangor put together an 11-0 run. The Cardinals eventually held a 36-21 halftime advantage and picked up right where they left off to start the second half. From that point forward, they kept a comfortable lead all the way to the final buzzer.

Despite looking sharp early, the Panthers started to sputter on offense, plagued by a combination of turnovers, cold-shooting spells, contested shots and lockdown defense from Bangor.

“Defensively, it was one of our best games this season,” said Bangor head coach Jordan Laufenberg. “And against that type of team, you have to have a good defensive effort. Really proud of our effort tonight.”

Bangor senior guard Luke Reader, a UW–Eau Claire commit, led all scorers with 20 points, including 17 in the first half. Senior guard Drew Johnson scored 17 points, senior guard Caleb Miedema added 12 points and sophomore forward Grant Manke recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds as well for the Cardinals.

For Royall, junior guard Dane Hyer led the way with 14 points, Brown finished with 12 points, senior forward Tristan Welchlin posted eight points, senior guard Jaydyn Enzenbacher contributed seven points and senior guard Keith Travis chipped in six points.

Bangor, ranked No. 1 among Division 5 teams in the state in the most recent Coaches poll and No. 2 in the final AP poll, now moves on to yet another sectional final. But despite their recent run of success, the Cardinals are still searching for their first trip to the state tournament since 1936.

In 2016, Bangor erased a 12-point halftime deficit in its sectional final against Barneveld. But the Eagles took the lead on a pair of free throws and made a defensive stop in the waning seconds to hold on for a 57-55 win. Last year, the Cardinals got another shot at a trip to the Kohl Center in their sectional final against Shullsburg.

A pair of Luke Reader free throws gave Bangor a 58-57 lead with under 30 seconds remaining. However, the Cardinals once again had the rug pulled out from underneath them when Noah Wand buried an off-balance, last-second 3-pointer to give the Miners a 60-58 victory.

Now, the Cardinals get one more chance at a sectional title with Reader and this senior core. They’ll take on the Southwestern Wildcats (14-12), a No. 7 seed in the midst of a postseason Cinderella run, Saturday, March 10 at 7:00 p.m. at La Crosse Logan High School. Southwestern has won its last three playoff games by a combined five points, including a 67-66 double overtime win over the No. 1-seeded Seneca Indians (22-3) in Thursday’s sectional semifinals.

If the Cardinals take care of business against the underdog Wildcats, they will finally punch their long-awaited ticket to Madison. You can count Uppena among those hoping Bangor ends its 82-year state tournament drought.

“We were 21-5 and we lost three times to the No. 1 team in the state, and hopefully the team that ends up winning it all. At least we’re hoping that they are,” Uppena said. “They’re a good bunch of kids, they’re well-coached. I wish them all the best.”

“They’re going to be a tough out. No matter who they end up playing in the entire state … they’re going to be a tough out.”

As for the Panthers, the loss means the end of the road for a prolific senior class of their own. Enzenbacher, Welchlin, Brown, Travis, point guard Nick Murray, forward Josh Kolodzinski, guard Tyler Johnson and forward Hunter Schroeder all played the final games of their Royall careers Thursday night.

Brown and Enzenbacher each surpassed the 1,000-point mark for their careers, finishing with 1,039 and 1,026 points, respectively.

It was this senior core that was the driving force behind the Panthers’ first regional title in five years. They finished this season ranked No. 6 in the final Division 5 AP poll and with a 21-5 record. Had it not been for Bangor, who handed Royall three of its five losses this year, the Panthers would’ve been well-positioned to bring home a Scenic Bluffs Conference title and make an even deeper postseason run.

To Uppena, who just completed his fifth season as Royall’s head coach, this group is particularly special. He noted they were the first class with whom he was truly able to implement his vision for Royall basketball.

“They mean a lot to the school. They mean a lot to me as well,” Uppena said. “Those kids were my first group of kids that came through and I asked them here’s what I wanted to do as far as, not necessarily building a program, but this is the direction I wanted to go. How I asked them to play was a little bit different than how it was in the past, but they bought in.”

“This was a great group of kids. I’m going to miss them. I got to know them a lot more in the last two years off the court than on the court, and they’re a bunch of kids who I know are going to be successful no matter what they do because they’re genuine kids and they know how to work hard.”

It won’t be easy for the Panthers to replace this senior class — they accounted for 86.8 percent of Royall’s points this season — but Uppena is hopeful the next guys up are up to the challenge of filling those shoes.

For the time being, Royall’s players, coaches and fans will have the opportunity to reflect and appreciate all this group gave to Panthers basketball not just this season, but the last four years as a whole.

But as is the case for so many teams this time of year, the celebration will be tinged with a sense of sadness that it all had to end so soon.