March 12 will go down as a sad day for basketball fans. That afternoon the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, and then later that evening, the WIAA cancelled what was remaining of the high school girls and boys basketball seasons.
The following week, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released a bracket made up of the teams he thought would be in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and not too long after that, ESPN used its Basketball Power Index to run simulations how the tournament could have played out based on Lunardi’s bracket.
By now, most of you probably heard how that turned out. Wisconsin, as a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region, reached the Final Four with victories over North Texas, Liberty, Marquette and Duke. Then, in the Final Four, Wisconsin used a victory over Maryland to reach the national championship, where it went on to beat BYU to win ESPN’s simulate national title.
Badger fans all over social media went wild. It gave Wisconsin basketball fans something to be happy about while dealing with a much different kind of March Madness.
Wisconsin Dells high school basketball fans were among those hit the hardest. The Chiefs boys basketball team had just advanced to a Division 3 sectional championship game just a few hours before the curtain came down on the high school basketball season. Wisconsin Dells was just one win away from advancing to the program’s first state tournament since 2007.
While reading about ESPN’s simulated NCAA tournament last week, it made me wonder, what would happen if someone could simulate the remainder of the Wisconsin Dells’ boys basketball season? Fortunately for Chiefs fans, I decided to find out.
While I don’t have access to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, I do have a pretty active imagination. After entering thousands of stats and data points into my noggin, I was able to run a number of simulations on the season. In ESPN’s story, it used simulation No. 2020, since this was the 2020 NCAA Tournament. For our purposes, I decided to use simulation No. 1987. Why 1987? I hear that was a pretty good year for Wisconsin Dells basketball.
Now it’s time to find out just how that simulation turned out. Chiefs fans, let me warn you. It’s a real doozy.
Wisconsin Dells vs. Prescott
Prescott’s Parker Nielsen, who averaged 27.9 points per game this season, was a real handful for the Chiefs. The 6-foot-5 senior, who has committed to play next season at Division II West Texas A&M, nearly reached his average in the first half alone, as he scored 25 points before the break, and the Cardinals bolted out to a 45-28 halftime lead over the Chiefs.
Wisconsin Dells struggled on the offensive end in the first half, but started to gain steam. Back-to-back 3-point baskets from sophomore Jacob Rockewll cut the Prescott lead to 53-40 with just over 14 minutes remaining in the game. The Chiefs then went on a 10-0 run, a stretch that included a pair of corner 3-pointers from senior Dylan Nevar. The second of those 3-pointers gave Wisconsin Dells its first lead of the game at 73-71 with 23 seconds remaining.
Coming out of a timeout, Prescott again turned to Nielsen, who was held scoreless since his big opening half. Nielsen would finally end his scoring drought, burying a 3-pointer with just 7.2 seconds left, to give the Cardinals a 74-73 lead.
Using his final timeout of the game, Wisconsin Dells coach Brad Rohling drew up a play he had been saving all season. After inbounding the ball to Bryson Funmaker, the senior guard barreled down the left side of the court before pulling up from 30 feet for a shot at the game-winning 3-pointer. Funmaker’s shot was well short of the rim, but out of nowhere, 6-foot-8 senior Sam Millard grabbed the rebound and slammed it through the hoop just before time expired. After the shot, Rohling could be seen running around the court looking for somebody to hug, as the Chiefs were headed to the state tournament in Madison.
Wisconsin Dells vs. Wrightstown
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Wisconsin Dells was joined in the Division 3 state field by Wrightstown, Beloit Turner and Racine St. Catherine’s. Wisconsin Dells was named the tournament’s second seed, giving the Chiefs a game with No. 3 seed Wrightstown in Thursday’s semifinals.
Unlike the sectional final victory over Prescott, the Chiefs came out of the gates firing on all cylinders. Seniors Riley Eck and Brett Hirst both had 16 points in the first half, leading Wisconsin Dells to a 49-18 halftime lead over the high-flying Tigers, who entered the tournament with a 25-1 record.
But before Chiefs fans could head out to State Street to start celebrating the victory, things started to get interesting in the second half. Wrightstown slowly started to chip away at the lead, and with just under 1:00 to play, a layup by Wrightstown junior Sam Haese tied the game at 68.
Wisconsin Dells would try to hold the ball for the game’s final possession, but Millard would be called for a traveling violation with 12 seconds remaining when he slipped and fell to the floor after blowing out the bottom of his right sneaker. Millard had to be helped off the floor with an injury, and now it was Wrightstown that had a shot at the game-winning bucket.
The Tigers got the ball to Haese, who had already scored 32 points to lead the huge comeback, but as he was crossing half court, Funmaker picked his pocket and stole the ball. Funmaker raced down the floor and just before the buzzer sounded, dropped the ball through the hoop, sending the Chiefs onto Saturday’s championship game with a heart-stopping 70-68 victory.
Wisconsin Dells vs. Racine St. Catherine’s
The Chiefs’ opponent in the championship game would be tough one. Racine St. Catherine’s cruised through the season in relatively easy fashion, including Thursday’s 94-53 throttling of Beloit Turner in the other semifinal.
The Angels are led by 6-foot-1 junior guard Tyrese Hunter, who has a number of Division 1 college scholarship offers, and has been unstoppable all season, including on Thursday, when he scored 42 points in the win over Beloit Turner. Before the game, one Madison radio station called Wisconsin Dells the biggest underdog the state tournament has ever seen.
Making matters worse for the Chiefs, Millard was still feeling the effects of his knee injury from the blown-out sneaker two days earlier. Many thought Millard’s high school career was over, but he surprised many when he walked out on the floor for warmups, and then had his name announced as one of starters for Wisconsin Dells.
Millard would make his first two shot attempts of the game, in what would be his only points of the game, helping Wisconsin Dells hang close in the early going.
The Angels led most of the way, but Wisconsin Dells remained within striking distance. Due to Millard’s limited minutes, and foul trouble to Eck, Nevar and Hirst, seniors Ben Koenig, Brennen Tofson, Jake Hale and Colin Kaiser were all called on to contribute.
With under 2:00 to play, Wisconsin Dells was trailing 65-58 when Millard went to the bench for good. That meant senior Jack Steinhaus would have to play the rest of the way for the Chiefs, and the 6-foot-8 senior made an immediate impact. His putback slam dunk off a Rockwell miss made it 65-60 with 1:40 to go. Then his step-back 3-pointer caught the Angels by surprise, and got the Wisconsin Dells fans in a real tizzy as it touched nothing but net to make it 65-63 with 54 seconds to play.
Racine St. Catherine’s had little trouble breaking Wisconsin Dells’ pressure defense most of the game, but the Chiefs were able to force a key turnover when Hirst stole the ball from Hunter with 32 seconds left.
Wisconsin Dells would hold the ball for the final possession of the game, and many thought Funmaker would take the game-tying shot attempt when he got a step on his defender while driving down the lane in the final seconds, but he instead found a wide-open Nevar standing in the right corner. In a shot that reminded many of Sam Dekker’s 3-pointer that lifted Sheboygan Lutheran to a state championship in 2012, Nevar fired away and buried the shot as the buzzer sounded, giving Wisconsin Dells a remarkable 66-65 victory and the program’s first state championship since Tim Decorah scored 31 points to lead the 1987 Wisconsin Dells squad to a 62-50 victory over Clintonville in the 1987 Class B state championship game.
So there you have it, the Chiefs are the 2020 state (simulated) champions. I know it’s disappointing that we didn’t get to see it happen, because it was one heck of a season, but at least now we know how it would have ended had Wisconsin Dells got the opportunity to finish things out.
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