Second half surge powers Little Chute past Oconto Falls in NEC opener

Dustin Riese

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and that is what the Oconto Falls boys basketball team was trying to accomplish Nov. 28. Coming off a season opening win the week before, the Panthers turned their attention to conference play as they hit the road for their North Eastern Conference opener.

This wasn’t your typical NEC opener; instead, it was a matchup against the defending conference champion Little Chute Mustangs, who are once again predicted to compete for the league crown. Despite the Panthers best efforts, it was a second half surge that put the Panthers away as the Mustangs used a 16-0 run to blow things open before outscoring the Panthers 40-14 in the second half to secure the 66-32 victory.

“We knew we were going to be in for a battle tonight, and unfortunately we came up short,” coach Ross Kraszewski said. “There is a reason why that team won the league last season. They’re a well-coached group filled with shooters, and they made us pay for our mistakes.”

If you want to beat a team like the Mustangs, you need to hit them in the mouth, and the Panthers did that right away with Grayson Cahak knocking down an early triple followed by a put back from Jack Adler to keep things tight 6-5 in the early minutes.

That is when the senior duo of Hunter Hermus and Tyler Fischer took over as they combined to score the next 10 points for the Mustangs to help Little Chute open up a 16-9 advantage. Hermus led all scorers with 18 points and Fischer added 17, as they combined to outscore the entire Panthers roster.

In danger of letting this one get away early, Alex Haines took it upon himself to drive the lane and converted on the tough and one finish. Haines was crucial to the Panthers success in the first half. His ability to drive the lane opened things up for Jameson Beaman and others as the Panthers pulled within 18-14. Trailing 26-16 after another Fischer triple, Little Chute was playing for the last shot, but it was Brady Bursa coming away with the steal and going coast to coast to beat the buzzer as the Panthers were within striking distance, 26-18.

Kraszewski was happy where his team was following the first 18 minutes.

“I thought the kids did a great job responding every time they tried to stretch things out,” he said. “This isn’t a team you want to fall behind against, and anytime you face a double-digit lead, it will be an uphill battle. For us to continue to battle back and take their best shots goes to show you the character of this group as they will not quit.”

Hoping to use that late first half momentum and carry it over into the second half, it was the Mustangs who came out strong as they upped their pressure on defense while also turning up the tempo on offense to secure two quick buckets to give them their largest lead of the night, 30-18.

Beaman responded with a put back bucket of his own, but once again, it was Fischer and Hermus coming through as their ability to get behind the defense and run the fast break led to an 8-2 run with both of those guys responsible for six of those points.

Another bucket from Beaman kept the Panthers close, at 36-22, but eventually you had to think the Mustangs’ experience and defensive tenacity would take over. It was at this point in the game when the Panthers not only saw their hopes of an upset bid come to an end, but they couldn’t do much of anything the rest of the way as Haines accounted for six of the team’s final 10 points down the stretch.

Even with the Mustangs taking Fischer and Hermus out of the game, guys like Nolan Jakubek, Charlie Vanden Burgt and Sawyer Effa all began to take over down the stretch as the Mustangs ended the game on a 30-10 run.

George Moody and Jackson McDonald scored a pair of late-game buckets to get into the scoring column, but it didn’t take away from the fact that the Panthers were handed their first conference loss to fall to 1-1 on the season.

“This is going to be one of the best if not the best defensive teams we see all season,” Kraszewski said. “Their ability to get in your face and pressure you the entire court all game long isn’t something we typically see, and there is no way to prepare for it until you see the real thing. I thought the kids did a great job taking care of the ball early on, but once they started forcing turnovers and getting out and running, we knew it was going to be a long night.”