By Paul Lecker
WAUSAU – The Marshfield Columbus Catholic boys basketball team fell down by 10 points early in the second half and had one of its five senior starters on the bench with four fouls.
The Dons could have panicked, started taking ill-advised shots to get back in the game, become flustered under the pressure. Instead, they rose to the occasion and blew their opponent out of the water.
Columbus regrouped from the 10-point deficit with a 16-0 run and held Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran to just one made field goal in the final five minutes to win the WIAA Division 5 sectional final, 79-69, and advance to the state tournament for the second time in the past three years.
Columbus Catholic (25-2) will play in a Division 5 semifinal at the 2019 WIAA State Boys Basketball Tournament at the Kohl Center in Madison on Friday morning. An opponent and time will be announced when the teams are seeded on Sunday.
Columbus, which had lost to Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran by one point in last year’s sectional final, was able pull this one off with sheer determination.
“I’m proud,” said Columbus Catholic coach Joe Konieczny, who now owns a career record of 274-84. “Two years ago, we experienced the high of the highs, and then last year, to lose this game by one, was the low of the lows, emotionally. To be down and see what these kids did those last 10-11 minutes, I couldn’t be more proud of them, and to be their coach.”
Much of the first half was tight, with neither team able to pull away until N.E.W. Lutheran (16-11) used a 9-0 run to take a 38-29 lead.
Bryce Fuerlinger had a three-point play and another basket to help the Dons pull to within a 40-34 score at halftime.
A pair of 3-pointers from Jacob Champeau and Zach Luepke helped the Blazers go up 54-44 with 14 minutes left in the game before an unlikely hero stepped forward for Columbus.
Junior Tom Nystrom, who averaged 4.4 points per game this season coming off the bench for the Dons, drilled a pair of 3-pointers to start the decisive run. Nystrom had also hit two 3s in the first half, and added another late in the game to finish with 15 points for Columbus.
“I’ve been on him all year long. He’s got to be confident,” senior Jared Mandel said. “When he’s confident, he’s one of the best shooters on our team. Today, he sure the heck was confident and shot lights out.”
The two long balls energized the Dons, who forced eight-straight misses and three turnovers from N.E.W. Lutheran as they forged ahead.
Mandel drove to the hoop for a bucket, Noah Taylor added a pair of baskets, and Fuerlinger, who finished a perfect 7-for-7 from the field, scored on the inside to give Columbus a 60-54 lead with 7:20 remaining.
“We had to focus on their big scorer (Samuel Meerstein),” Taylor said. “Once we got him off his roll, they kind of shut down and they stopped hitting shots. We hit some shots and got back in it.”
Luepke scored on back-to-back possessions for the Blazers, cutting the Dons’ lead to two, but Columbus was on fire by this point and seemingly unstoppable.
Mandel countered with a 3-pointer and Kellen Heinzen scored off a nice pass inside from Mandel, to put the Dons back up by seven and they would lead by at least five the rest of the way.
Nystrom’s fifth 3-pointer came with 3:34 left to give the Dons their first double-digit lead at 72-61, and Columbus was able to close out the win by holding N.E.W. Lutheran to just one made field goal in the final 5:30.
“We knew we didn’t have a good first half, we were getting bullied a little bit,” Mandel said. “The second half started the same way, we called a timeout and got it together. Coach said he just had to be physical. We had to be strong, take it to them. When Bryce got down low, we just had to feed it to him. He did an amazing job.”
Fuerlinger finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds, Taylor added 16 points, and Mandel had 12 points and eight rebounds for the Dons.
Meerstein had 17 points and Champeau chipped in 14 for the Blazers, who made just 10 of 35 shots overall and were 2-for-12 from 3-point range in the second half.
“I thought we were nervous to start the game,” Konieczny said. “I thought we played the first half kind of reactive. They played great, fundamentally sound defense, and we didn’t handle it well. We spent too much time with negative emotion and not moving on to the next play. In the second half, they hit some shots. Tommy Nystrom kept us in the game. What a great performance he had in a big environment on Thursday and today.”
Dons 79, Blazers 69
Columbus Catholic 34 45 – 79
Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran 40 29 – 69
COLUMBUS CATHOLIC (79): Noah Taylor 7-14 2-5 16, Will Boyer 0-0 0-0 0, Jadon Nienast 0-0 0-0 0, Tom Nystrom 5-9 0-0 15, Bryce Fuerlinger 7-7 7-11 21, Zach Olson 0-0 0-0 0, Eden Jacobson 0-0 0-0 0, Gage Stratman 0-0 0-0 0, Ethan Meece 3-9 2-2 8, Kellen Heinzen 3-4 1-1 7, Sam Wilczek 0-0 0-0 0, Jarred Mandel 5-11 1-4 12. FG: 30-54. FT: 13-23. 3-pointers: 6-14 (Nystrom 5-8, Mandel 1-3, Meece 0-1, Taylor 0-2). Rebounds: 35 (Fuerlinger 13). Turnovers: 17. Fouls: 20. Fouled out: Meece. Record: 25-2.
N.E.W. LUTHERAN (69): Ranji Bullock 0-1 0-0 0, Jacob Champeau 3-11 6-6 14, Zach Luepke 4-8 0-1 9, Collin Johnsen 0-1 0-0 0, Lucas Bukowski 2-8 1-2 7, Elijah Lange 0-0 2-2 2, Sam Huguet 0-0 0-0 0, Samuel Meerstein 6-16 4-5 17, Sam Gast 0-0 0-0 0, Nathan Puyleart 0-0 0-0 0, Caleb Gosse 0-1 0-0 0, Adam Gosse 4-4 0-0 8, Marshal Bukowski 5-9 1-2 12. FG: 24-59. FT: 14-18. 3-pointers: 7-21 (Champeau 2-4, L. Bukowski 2-5, M. Bukowski 1-1, Luepke 1-4, Meerstein 1-7). Rebounds: 28 (Meerstein 10). Turnovers: 11. Fouls: 13. Fouled out: none. Record: 16-11.