Wed., March 12, 2014 | SPORTS
Eagles break down door to state
First trip to state boys basketball in school history
Marty Seeger | Staff writer
NEW RICHMOND – Aside from the Milltown boys basketball team that made it to the Wisconsin state championships in 1931, no other boys basketball team, even after the villages of Balsam Lake, Milltown and Centuria combined to form Unity High School more than 50 years ago, has made it back to Madison.
PHOTO: Unity senior Zac Johnson celebrates with teammate Dakota Ward after the Eagles sectional semifinal win over Abbotsford. - Photo by Marty Seeger
“I’ve been at this spot three times now, and I was not going to go with the, ‘what if we would have went to state’ … I didn’t want that this year, I wanted to go to the Kohl Center and make it happen,’ said Eagles senior guard Zac Johnson, who finished with 11 points in a battle that featured as many as 13 lead changes, including seven in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles offense started out slow in the first half, as Mondovi led 10-4 after the first quarter, but Unity cut it to two points with a pair of baskets inside from Dakota Ward. It was the only four points by Ward, who ran into foul trouble early in the second quarter and sat for the rest of the first half. But Unity’s defense stepped up as it has the entire season, and Logan Bader helped even up the game at 10 apiece with five minutes remaining in the first half. Bader connected again on a short jumper to give the Eagles a brief two-point lead, but Mondovi answered shortly after, and senior Oliver Raboin, a big part of the Eagles inside presence, drew a third foul for the game, forcing the Eagles to take a time-out after the Buffaloes took a 16-12 lead.
“If Oliver and Dakota would have fouled out I don’t know what would have happened, because they were great inside and we needed them,” Johnson said, but again the Eagles defense held off Mondovi before the end of the half.
“Going into halftime it felt like we were a little bit down, but we started a rally in the second half, and our defense stepped up, and we realized we could win this game,” said Johnson.
Despite Ward drawing his third foul to start the third quarter, the Eagles inside presence was still tough to stop for Mondovi, as Raboin scored four points and Bader connected on a long jumper to cut the Buffaloes lead 20-18. Johnson also hit a timely 3-pointer, but so did Mondovi’s Erich Wolf, making it 27-23 Buffaloes.
The Eagles trailed by four with under three minutes to go in the third, and Dylan Ruck stepped up huge with a 3-pointer to bring the game within one point, leaving it 27-26 after three. But before the buzzer, Raboin drew his fourth foul.
“I got myself into a little bit of foul trouble, but I just knew I had to continue to play smart and play strong,” Raboin said.
Ward drew a fourth foul early in the fourth quarter, but it was the last one for both players. With seven lead changes in the fourth quarter alone, it was a fight to the finish, but a half-court scramble for the ball that led to a fast-break two-and-one opportunity for Bader, seemed to set a different tone for the Eagles.
“When Logan Bader got the two-and-one on the drive, the fast break, I think that was a momentum shifter right there,” Johnson said, and while the offense was getting on track, the defense was still busy creating turnovers.
Ruck had a big steal and Raboin banked it in moments later with four minutes to go in the game, giving the Eagles a 32-31 lead.
The Buffaloes capitalized on Unity’s sixth and seventh fouls in the final two minutes, going 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. They regained a 35-32 lead, but Unity seemed unfazed as they had throughout the entire second half. It was something coach Shaun Fisher didn’t see in the Eagles double-overtime victory against Abbotsford two days earlier. But as it has been throughout the year, Unity backed up adversity with a steady dose of defense.
“Defense is kind of what we’ve hung our hat on all year, so they’re going to keep playing hard no matter what, and whatever happens, happens,” Fisher said. “Zac and Dylan both hit big 3-pointers in the second half too, and if we don’t hit those it could go the other way, so, I mean we just always had an answer in the second half. We played loose. That second half against Abbotsford we didn’t play loose.”
With just over two minutes to go, Bader cut the lead to one and a blocked shot by the Eagles helped them regain possession. Bader again came through for Unity, this time from just inside the arc to give the Eagles a 36-35 lead with 56 seconds in the game. After an Eagles timeout, the Buffaloes made a costly turnover, and Unity controlled the ball for the majority of the final 40 seconds of the game.
Johnson went 1 for 2 from the line with 32 seconds remaining, and the Buffaloes got one more opportunity to tie with a 3-pointer, but another turnover resulted in Mondovi being forced to foul, which got Johnson to the line twice more. He went 3 for 6 in the final 30 seconds to help seal the Eagles win and punch their ticket to state.
“This is part of why you coach, and why you play,” Fisher said. “It’s a great accomplishment. It’s something that we’ve kind of thrown out there in years past, ‘hey we want to get there,’ but I don’t ever know if we really knew what it took to get there. Didn’t maybe have the breaks or draws that we needed to get there, but I’m so happy. These kids are remarkable. They deserve it, they’ve earned it. I couldn’t ask for a better group.”
Game totals included Bader with 12 points, Johnson, 11, Raboin, nine, Ward, four, and Ruck, three.
“It was a great team win. Nobody averages 20 points a game on our team, and that’s what’s great because everybody can step up and score,” Johnson said.
Unity (22-2) will play Blair-Taylor, (22-3), this Thursday, March 13, at 8:15 p.m., in the state semifinals. The Wildcats are a familiar face at state, as this is their eighth state tournament appearance. The most recent was in 2011, which was their third of three straight appearances. The Dairyland Conference champions have lost in the semifinals in each of their seven previous state appearances. But records and state experience doesn’t likely matter much to the Eagles right now, who after their third shot at a chance to go to state, finally earned their way.
“We just kept it up, and it was all about our heart, and we’ve got heart,” Bader said, and Raboin seemed to echo that excitemnent.
“It feels awesome. Last year we were right at the doorstep and we finally broke that door down and we’re going now.”
The Eagle boys basketball team celebrate with the crowd after a 39-35 win over Mondovi on Saturday, March 8, earning Unity’s first-ever trip to the state tournament in Madison. The Eagles play their state semifinal game at the Kohl Center versus Blair-Taylor Thursday, March 13, beginning at 8:15 p.m. – Photo by Josh Johnson/MaxPreps