LA CROSSE -- They say it's a team game. Hustisford was happy to provide the latest example.
The top-seeded and top-ranked Falcons got key contributions from all six players to answer a huge test from fourth-seeded Wauzeka-Steuben for a 65-53 win in a Division 5 semifinal at the WIAA State Boys Basketball Tournament on Thursday morning at the La Crosse Center.
Hustisford senior guard Dylan Kuehl, a Northern Michigan recruit, and senior center Alex Eggleston shared game-high scoring honors with 19 points each for Hustisford (17-3). Wauzeka-Steuben senior guard Gavin Ralph, who is headed to the University of Upper Iowa next year, led the Hornets (12-3) with 17 points.
The team's two stars opened the scoring, with Kuehl hitting an open 3 from the right elbow and Ralph converting a three-point play following a steal.
The Hornets, not known for their 3-point shooting, connected on five of them in the opening half and took a 29-23 lead on senior guard Zach Martin's triple with 7:41 left in the first. Two free throws by Ralph gave Wauzeka-Steuben its biggest lead, up 31-23 with 1:45 left in the half.
Kuehl picked up his third foul on the play, but the Falcons came up huge without him in the waning moments of the half with a 7-0 run. Junior point guard Gavin Thimm began it with a jumper from the top. Senior guard Dylan Kaemmerer hit a clutch 3 from the right wing with 31 seconds left and Eggleston came up with a block and drew a foul with 2.4 seconds left which put the Falcons in the bonus. Eggleston knocked down both free throws to trim Wauzeka-Steuben's lead to 31-30 at the half.
"That was huge, the way Gavin saw me go out of the game and he knew it was his time to take over," Kuehl said. "Him and Alex also have a great connection with that high-low on the low post, when Gavin dishes it off. I knew we weren't going to be in any trouble with Gavin in there for us to bounce back."
Hustisford boys basketball coach Otto Hopfinger also went into the locker room feeling confident after the late run by the supporting cast.
"It was huge," Hopfinger said. "You know what kind of player Dylan is and what kind of leader he is on the court, as far as what he can do with the ball on offense and defense. When he got in foul trouble and had to go out of the game, I was a little concerned, but we have such good players on our team. Gavin Thimm took the bull by the horns and the other guys just followed suit. They made some plays and hit some shots. I felt confident we could play with them even without Dylan in the game, because we have a solid team. We are balanced and we have guys who step up when they need to."
Junior guard Jonah Reichman began the second half with Wauzeka-Steuben's sixth 3-pointer of the game, but Hustisford responded with a 12-2 run and never trailed again. Kuehl accounted for eight of the points, including his second dunk of the game off a lob from Kaemmerer to put the Falcons up 42-36 with 13 minutes, 13 seconds left in regulation.
"I heard coach call Beaver Dam," Kuehl said. "That's when I knew momentum was going to come our way. When that lob left Kaemmerer's hand, I knew I had to go get it. I threw it down and it was all momentum from there. We try to take every little bit, not only dunks but steals and blocks, we try to put it to our momentum and our offense will go from there."
Reichmann made the seventh and final 3 for the Hornets to trim the lead to 42-40, but the Falcons scored the next nine points and kept the lead at eight points or higher down the stretch. Senior forward Brody Thimm spearheaded that run. Coming off the bench and playing with a knee injury suffered in the sectional final, Thimm drove the lane and dished to junior forward Blake Peplinski for a layup, then hit an open look from the left wing to make it 47-40. Eggleston finished the run with two baskets in the lane and the lead was 11 with 8:13 to play.
"Playing D5 basketball, you don't see that kind of size, a guy who is 6-foot-9 (Eggleston) and another who is 6-6 (Kuehl)," Wauzeka-Steuben coach Isaiah Okey said. "How do you guard it? We had to rotate some things around. I thought my guys handled it very well. We tried a triangle and two defense on them and got a lead on them, because we played good defense. We tried to lock them up. We did that for a while there, but in the second half, the big guy got some more looks. That was our main preparation. We were going to take away the paint. We would much rather give them an outside jumper than get a layup.
"It's tough especially when we are keying on certain players. We had more help defense inside. There are players we are not keying on as much. When they are hitting shots, that's huge for the other team. Then it definitely breaks down because we have to open up our defense some more and give up open looks. We did our best."
"It was tough to keep them out of the paint," Ralph said. "They are just so big and athletic. We did the best we could. It sucks that we lost, but we played our hearts out."
The Hornets finally cooled off beyond the arc down the stretch, setting the Falcons on their way in transition. All the Hornets could hope to do was trade baskets as the Falcons bled the clock down the stretch and celebrated a trip to the finals.
"I'd like to give a lot of credit to Wauzeka-Steuben," Hopfinger said. "They had a great game plan coming in. They were a very good team. They did everything they needed to do to get us off-balance and had us off-balance for a little bit. Our defense was excellent, but some of their guys were making some shots that we didn't think they were going to make and give them credit for that. That gave them some momentum and we got into some foul trouble, so I wondered, how we were going to respond?
"Like they have all year, my team is amazing. We have such great chemistry and we're just like a family and when things get tough, they don't get on each other, they don't start blaming anybody, they don't get frustrated. They pick their game up to the next level. That's what we've done all year. We've played some great teams this season and Wauzeka-Steuben is one of them. No matter what people were throwing at us, we battled and gave everything we had. I am proud of every single player on my team. This is just an amazing ride. We've made it to the pinnacle."
The job Peplinski did on Ralph defensively was impressive. Ralph got his points, finishing with 17 to go with six rebounds. But he couldn't break Peplinski down and therefore couldn't set up teammates the way he was used to. Ralph had three assists. Peplinksi finished with 10 points, seven assists and four rebounds.
"Amazing," Hopfinger said. "We started out with Dylan on him. We knew Blake was going to be coming in with the first sub. Once we put Blake on him, he was so focused. That was a very good player he was guarding, and he did not let him get his usual shots. He got some shots and scored some points, but not the way he is used to. We saw a lot of films on him and I think Blake played him better than anybody has all season. That was a huge contributing factor to our win. Blake's been doing that all year. He's our defensive specialist, our rebounding specialist. He gets the easy bunny because everybody is concentrating on somebody else. He stepped up big again today."
Kaemmerer added five rebounds and three assists to go with the biggest shot of his life late in the first half. Brody Thimm gutted out an injury and found ways to contribute as the Falcons pulled away in the second half.
"Both of those guys are seniors that are so critical to our success," Hopfinger said. "Dylan has been stepping up big on defense. He is a very good shooter. He doesn't shoot that many 3s, but he can knock them down. Brody has developed into a 3-pointer and when he is hitting it, it's nothing but net. It's huge that both of those guys hit a 3 for us and kept us rolling."
Kuehl added 10 rebounds for a double-double. Eggleston added six rebounds and two blocks. Gavin Thimm finished with 11 points, two blocks and two steals.
Reichmann added nine for Wauzeka-Steuben. Nate Martin, Zach Martin and Garret Kapinus each added eight for the Hornets, who were denied a chance to play in the sectional final when COVID-19 shut down last year's postseason.
"Just to be able to get here through everything, having to quarantine through everything during the season, it was just tough," Ralph said. "We never knew when our last game was going to be, or our last practice, so we definitely didn't want to take it for granted and worked hard every day."
Ralph and Kuehl have grown up facing each other. They relished matching up on the big stage.
"Dylan is a heck of a player," Ralph said. "I have watched him throughout the summer. In summer ball, we played against each other. It was a fun matchup for both of us. I would say I wish the best for him as well."
Kuehl said, "We have played over the summer and played each other growing up playing in a whole bunch of tournaments against each other. I knew on film, I've seen him before. He's a great player. He's going to Upper Iowa for college. His moves are just so good. Props to him."