The Lakeland boys’ basketball team opened regional playoff play in Wausau Tuesday night, but was unable to come away with a victory and saw its season end with a 65-60 loss at the hands of Wausau East.
Lakeland, the six seed, traveled to Wausau East to take on the third-seeded Lumberjacks, and quickly jumped out to an early 9-2 lead in the first quarter.
East stormed back to tie the game at 11-11 and eventually took a 15-13 lead with seconds remaining in the quarter.
Tom Bruckner hit a pull-up three-pointer as time wound down in the first to give Lakeland a 16-15 lead heading to the second quarter.
The teams traded baskets in the second quarter until East went on a 12-2 run to take a 36-27 lead near the end of the half.
Bruckner again hit a buzzer-beater, this time a strong drive to the hoop, to score for Lakeland before time expired, and the Thunderbirds went into halftime trailing 36-29.
After an East free throw to open the second half, Brad Holcombe scored four points around a bucket from 6-11 Wausau East center Dylan Hamlin, followed by a Bruckner drive for a layup, bringing Lakeland within four points at 39-35.
East closed out the quarter on a 7-3 run, which included five more points from Hamlin, to take a 46-38 lead to the final quarter.
East opened the fourth quarter with a basket to push the lead to 10 points, but Bruckner and Holcombe quickly answered with four points for Lakeland.
East’s Bryce Widmark came right back with four of his own, maintaining Wausau’s 10-point lead. Wausau then scored five points around a Holcombe layup and a free throw from Levi Herrick to push the lead to 12 points, 57-45.
Lakeland went on a run of its own, with James Bant knocking down a three-pointer, followed by a jumper from Holcombe and a free throw from Bant to close the gap to 57-51.
After Hamlin and Bruckner traded layups, making the score 59-52 with less than two minutes to play, Lakeland was forced to foul.
East hit its free throws down the line, and while Bruckner and Bant each added layups and Holcombe knocked down a trey, Lakeland could not complete the comeback and fell to East, 65-60.
Head coach Rich Fortier said throughout the game it felt like Lakeland was just a play or two away from winning the game.
“It wasn’t for a lack of effort, just a lack of execution in some key spots,” Fortier said. “That’s all it takes when you lose by five. Not a lot has to go wrong or right for the outcome to go either way.”
Fortier said Lakeland had chances to make those plays, but wasn’t able to convert.
“We had some opportunities, we got close,” Fortier said. “We had some free throw opportunities that we didn’t take advantage of, we had some turnovers and let some breakouts that we probably could have gotten to, we had some three-point pulls that I know our guys would love to get again, and we had some looks that we just didn’t make.”
Despite not playing the cleanest game, Fortier said Lakeland put forth a strong effort to stay within five points of a strong, athletic Wausau East team.
“All that having been said, all the things that didn’t go our way, we were still able to stay within five points of a pretty talented team,” Fortier said.
Even while missing numerous open shots, Lakeland was able to put 60 points on the board, but was unable to slow down East, who had four players scoring in double figures, led by Hamlin with 17 and Widmark with 15.
“If you give up 65 points, you probably expect to lose a high school basketball game,” Fortier said. “I love that we scored 60, that showed that we can score, and we had ample opportunities to score even more, but give them credit, they scored 65 on our defense when we thought we knew what we wanted to do.”
Bruckner scored 21 points to lead all players on the night. Holcombe added 14 and Herrick scored nine.
Lakeland took the court without senior Ross Koester, who missed the game because of an illness. Fortier said losing Koester was a big hit before the game even started.
“Ross is an integral piece of our team, and losing him hurt us defensively, big time, and it hurt us offensively,” Fortier said. “He’s a strong kid, and it hurt us on the boards.”
Bant, who spent the majority of the season on the JV squad, was called into action and used liberally throughout the game.
“James, though, I have to say, acquitted himself pretty well,” Fortier said. “For the small amount of time he had to get ready, he performed well.”
Bant scored six points and helped pick up what Lakeland missed without Koester on the floor.
Following the loss, Fortier said he was proud of the team’s effort, they were just outplayed on the night.
“These kids played hard, I just felt like East was the better team tonight,” Fortier said. “They’re long, they’re bigger, they shot the ball better than we did, and they earned it. They had five more points than us, and there was a reason for it.”
Jim Oxley may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.