By Paul Lecker
MARSHFIELD – The Marshfield Columbus Catholic boys basketball team likes to play fast. Neillsville, on the other hand, likes to play even faster.
The similar styles made for an up-and-down, thrilling finish to the Dons’ Cloverbelt Conference season.
Columbus built a 17-point lead by halftime, saw Neillsville make a big comeback in the second half and twice take the lead, but the Dons were able regroup and pull out a 79-75 victory on Monday night at Columbus Catholic High School.
The Dons captured their fourth-straight Cloverbelt Conference East Division championship, and second undefeated conference slate in a row, improving to 20-1 overall and 16-0 in conference play. Columbus finishes the season on a 33-game conference winning streak.
Neillsville is now 15-5 overall and 12-3 in the Cloverbelt East. The Warriors finish their conference schedule at Spencer on Tuesday.
Columbus made 11 of 36 3-point attempts, while Neillsville was 16-for-50 from long range in a wild offensive matchup.
“You don’t play a lot of teams where every game has the capability of knocking down an open 3,” Columbus coach Joe Konieczny said. “(Alex) King and (Braden) Trunkel are very, very gifted and the three guys around them can shoot so well that it’s hard to help on them. We tried multiple defenses, especially in the second half, but it seemed like we just kept losing a guy in the rotation and he hit a 3 that would hurt us.”
After a back-and-forth start to the game, Columbus put together an 18-5 run to take a 34-18 lead at the 5:19 mark of the first half.
Jarred Mandel made a 3-pointer, Noah Taylor scored in the lane, and Bryce Fuerlinger made two baskets inside to put the Dons up by 16.
Alex King and Braden Trunkel made 3-pointers, and Trunkel made another hoop to get Neillsville to within 11, but the Dons responded with an 8-2 run to end the half – six points coming from Taylor – and Columbus led 47-30 at the break.
“We played about as well as we could have in the first half,” Konieczny said. “We scored 47, held them to 30, and they haven’t had too many too many halves 30 or under this year. You know eventually they’re going to hit a few and you hope you can prevent the snowball. For the most part, we were able to do that.”
Neillsville shot just 33 percent (12 of 36) in the first half and was only 5-for-20 from 3-point range, but the normally hot shooting Warriors were not going to go away.
The Warriors used a 12-0 run, keyed by 3-pointers from King, Hunter Hand and Trunkel, to pull with six.
As the Dons struggled to score, the Warriors kept up the pressure on offense, and pulled ahead 66-64 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Monte Diestler and King. King’s 3 was the Warriors’ ninth in the first 11½ minutes of the second half.
The lead changed hands twice in the next minute before the Dons went in front for good.
A 3-pointer from Ethan Meece, his seventh of the game, made it 70-68 in favor of Columbus.
Neillsville would make just two more shots during the final four minutes, and the Dons were able to hold on.
Despite shooting just 8 of 19 from the free throw line, the Dons made four of its final six attempts in the final 1:30 to put the game away.
“We were trying to get the ball into Bryce (Fuerlinger) and I happened to get some open shots from him passing the ball out,” Meece said. “(Neillsville) like to push the ball up the court and they shoot well.”
Meece finished with a game-high 25 points, Noah Taylor had 17 points and 12 rebounds, Bryce Fuerlinger had 13 points and 16 rebounds, and Jarred Mandel chipped in 11 points and 10 rebounds as the Columbus seniors shined on Senior Night.
Evan Dieringer, who was injured during the football playoffs and missed the entire season, got the start on Monday for the Dons and was allowed to score one final basket on the opening possession. Neillsville then was allowed to score a hoop before a timeout. Dieringer walked off the floor to a standing ovation from the large crowd.
Trunkel had 23 points, including five 3-pointers, and Hunter Hand and Alex King each had 16 points for the Warriors.
The Cloverbelt Crossover first- and second-place games will be held Saturday at Neillsville. Neillsville will play in the second-place game at 1 p.m. against an opponent not yet determined. Columbus Catholic will take on West Division champ Osseo-Fairchild in the first-place game at 2:30 p.m.
Dons 79, Warriors 75
Neillsville 30 45 – 75
Columbus Catholic 47 32 – 79
NEILLSVILLE (75): Hunter Hand 6-13 1-5 16, Isaac Weiers 4-15 1-4 12, Braden Trunkel 9-17 0-0 23, Lucas Mosely 0-0 0-0 0, Alex King 6-17 1-2 16, Monte Diestler 3-12 0-0 8, Josiah Katcher 0-2 0-0 0, Peyton Heiman 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 28-76. FT: 3-11. 3-pointers: 16-50 (Trunkel 5-12, Hand 3-8, Weiers 3-10, King 3-12, Diestler 2-8). Rebounds: 41 (Hand 9). Turnovers: 9. Fouls: 15. Fouled out: none. Record: 15-5, 12-3 Cloverbelt Conference East Division.
COLUMBUS CATHOLIC (79): Evan Dieringer 1-1 0-0 2, Noah Taylor 7-21 3-7 17, Will Boyer 0-0 0-0 0, Tom Nystrom 1-1 0-0 3, Bryce Fuerlinger 6-8 1-4 13, Ethan Meece 8-17 2-5 25, Kellen Heinzen 3-5 2-3 8, Jarred Mandel 4-19 0-0 11. FG: 30-72. FT: 8-19. 3-pointers: 11-36 (Meece 7-14, Mandel 3-13, Nystrom 1-1, Taylor 0-7). Rebounds: 50 (Fuerlinger 16, Taylor 12, Mandel 10). Turnovers: 8. Fouls: 9. Fouled out: none. Record: 20-1, 16-0 Cloverbelt Conference East Division.