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Falcons basketball team climbs in WIAC to tie for top spot

February 18, 2016

The Falcons men’s basketball team fell in a hard-fought WIAC battle against conference leader UW-La Crosse Wednesday, Feb. 10 with a score of 77-87. The game had a playoff atmosphere throughout, and proved that the Falcons are a good enough team to battle with any other in the tightly-contested WIAC conference.

The game started off extremely fast-paced, with La Crosse hitting their first three shots to go up 7-2, but UWRF went stride for stride with the Eagles, fueled by Garret Pearson’s nine points. By the first timeout, the score was 19-14 with still 14 minutes remaining in the first quarter.

Head Coach Jeff Berkhof said, “Both teams came out making shots. UW-La Crosse was exceptionally hot from the three-point line, while we focused on working it inside more.”

Freshman Ben Meinholz gave the Eagles a huge boost, making some tough shots and throwing down a fast-break dunk to initially put the Eagles on top. But Junior Devin Yurk was the real star of the first half, knocking down all four of his three pointers to add 18 points to the Eagles’ high-powered offense. A quick 12-5 run out of the timeout put UW-La Crosse up 31-19 midway through the first half.

The Falcons didn’t go down easily, however, bringing the deficit back to three points at 35-32 with six minutes remaining in the half. The Falcons got back in the game with strong production from their bench, with sophomore forward Brennan Witt adding seven points and guard Devin Buckley knocking down two key three-pointers.

A late Eagles run brought the game to 46-40 as the teams went back to their locker rooms for halftime. UW-La Crosse shot an incredible 73 percent on threes in the first half, but the Falcons’ ability to get to the line and convert on their free throws kept the game close at the break.

La Crosse came out of the break on a mission, knocking down shot after shot to extend their lead to fourteen after a mere four minutes. Meinholz looked to be on a different level in the second half, knocking down contested shots all night and going 7-8 from the field after the break. His hot start stretched the lead to 66-48 in favor of the Eagles.

“We came out a little flat after halftime, and La Crosse came out and executed by hitting their first five shots of the half. That made us have to exert a lot of energy to get back into the game,” Berkhof said.

The Falcons came back with a resilience in the second half that proved they aren’t a team that will roll over. Garret Pearson put the team on his back, adding 17 points by mixing post moves and jump shots to stretch the UW-La Crosse defense.

“We were just playing our game. We play an inside-out approach and everyone knows it,” Pearson said.

Even with the Falcons leading scorer Jon Christensen struggling to knock down shots in the second half, River Falls managed to claw its way back into the game. The run was slow and steady, but the UWRF defense tightened up and converted on some big plays to bring the game back to five points with only two minutes remaining.

Berkhof said, “We gave up some easy baskets in the middle of the second half that let them get ahead. But we got back into it by attacking the rim and playing very aggressively to get to the line and force tough shots.”

With the score at 80-75, senior guard Jared Staege hit a clutch three-pointer that proved to be the dagger. The Eagles kept control of the ball down the stretch and managed to prevail 87-77 to hold sole possession of first place in the WIAC.

Pearson’s strong performance kept the Falcons around all night, dropping a game-high 28 points on 11-15 shooting. The rest of the Falcons starters only combined to go 5-24 from the field and had difficulty matching the scoring effort of UW-La Crosse. The Eagles finished with three starters contributing over 20 points, with Meinholz leading the way with 24 points.

“Going forward we need to continually try to get better defensively. We go through stretches of very tough defense and good basketball but then seem to fall apart,” Berkhof said.

Pearson also felt the need for improvement, simply stating, “Our defense needs a lot of work.”

With the loss, the Falcons drop to 7-4 in the WIAC and 13-9 overall. But after an overtime win against Platteville on Saturday, they only trailed UW-La Crosse by one game. The next Wednesday, the Falcons took on UW-Stout in an extremely close game where, after the Blue Devils took a strong early lead of 3-13, the Falcons pulled it back and won by a mere 2 points with a score of 81-79. The Falcons now find themselves tied for first place with UW-La Crosse both in conference with nine wins, four losses, and overall with 15 wins and nine losses.

The women’s basketball team has had huge success this season as well and are currently on a five-game winning streak which has them tied for the top spot in the WIAC conference with UW-Oshkosh. Both teams have 11 wins under their belt and just two losses.

The Falcons men’s team finish the regular season with an away game against UW-Oshkosh Saturday at 7 p.m. At the same time, UW-La Crosse will be going up against the UW-Stevens Point Pointers. With a win for the Falcons and a loss from UW-La Crosse, the men’s team will secure first place in the WIAC season. Women’s basketball will be finishing their season on the same day at 3 p.m. at home, also against UW-Oshkosh. Only one team will come out on top and stand tall as the WIAC regular season champions.