The stakes are the same-state high-and Rice Lake is an underdog-again. It's Rice Lake vs. Onalaska in Round 2 of a Division 2 boys' sectional basketball marquee match-up Thursday at Zorn Arena in Eau Claire. Onalaska (22-2) comes in as the same No. 1-ranked team in the state as the Hilltoppers were last year en route to a state title. Rice Lake (20-4) is ranked No. 5. When the two teams met last year in the same sectional semifinal game, it was No. 1 vs. No. 2, and No. 1 Onalaska got the win 57-47. "When we met last year Onalaska had been in the sectional the year before. Now we've been there before," said Warriors coach Kevin Orr this week. "Our kids are preparing well. They know what to expect. It's going to be a fun, great atmosphere." Tip-off is at 7 p.m. Only a handful of 2,500 tickets remained this Wednesday morning at Rice Lake High School. For as big as Thursday's showdown is, the winner has one more hurdle before state. The Hilltoppers or Warriors will be in Marshfield on Saturday for a 5 p.m. sectional title game against either Rhinelander (20-2) or Hortonville (17-6). Both Rhinelander and Hortonville were No.1 regional seeds, with Rhinelander ranked ninth in the state. Onalaska enters Thursday's game against Rice Lake with its same star player. Senior guard Matt Thomas has gone from Division 1 college prospect to Division 1 college recruit. The 6-foot-4 Thomas will play at Iowa State next season. Rice Lake's Division 1 recruit from last year's game, Wally Ellenson, has graduated and is with the Minnesota Gophers. But his sophomore brother Henry Ellenson, who scored six points in last year's game, is now the big-time college prospect. Thomas, a 63% shooter from the floor, is averaging 28 points per game. Henry Ellenson is averaging nearly 25 points per game, including 30 points per game over the Warriors' last six games, all wins. Whether the Hilltoppers have anyone to match Ellenson inside will be one of the game's story lines. Thomas and senior Connor Helgeson, who played but didn't start in last year's game, are the tallest Hilltoppers at 6-foot-4. "They play a lot of zone. We have to do a good job of attacking that and getting the ball inside to Henry and Ellwood," said Orr. Senior Ellwood Ellenson, Henry's brother, is 6-foot-8 and is one of three starters returning for Rice Lake from last year's big game. Onalaska has only two starters returning, Thomas and 6-foot-1 senior Clint Rihn, averaging six points per game. Thomas, who has scored as many as 50 points in a game this season, will get a dose of the defense of Rice Lake senior Adam West, who at 6-foot even will give up some inches to the Hilltoppers' star. "Adam is our best perimeter defender. I know he'll work as hard as he can on Thomas," said Orr. West also started in last year's game, though Wally Ellenson had the job of guarding Thomas. Thomas was held down for most of the game before finishing with a flourish for 19 points. It was senior guard Ben Socha who stepped up and scored 20 points, doubling his average. "We know Thomas will get his points. That's OK. We just have to make sure that none of their role players have a big game," said Orr. Besides Thomas, Rihn and Helgeson, starting for the Hilltoppers are 6-foot-3 senior Dustin Gordon, scoring nine points per game, and 6-foot-1 senior Braeden Stoner, at six points per game. Onalaska, the Mississippi Valley Conference champion, has brushed aside two Big Rivers teams already in tournament play, Menomonie by 56-34 and River Falls by 66-39. Big Rivers champion Rice Lake, in turn, has downed two Mississippi Valley teams, Tomah by 79-53 and La Crosse Central by 41-36.
Rice Lake 41 La Crosse Central 36 Rice Lake went on a 9-0 run on either side of halftime to wrestle the lead away from La Crosse Central in a slow-paced regional title game Saturday in La Crosse. After falling behind 19-13 to No. 2-seeded Central (20-4), Rice Lake worked its way into a 19-19 halftime time. Warriors junior Brandyn Christman opened the second half with a three-pointer, and Rice Lake never trailed again while limiting the Red Raiders to four points in the third quarter. "The biggest thing was that we were dialed in on the defensive side of the ball," said Orr, who noted that his team limited the play of Central's guards. Rice Lake took its biggest lead at 29-23 on Henry Ellenson's bucket off an offensive rebound with 1:20 remaining in the third. Central missed its last shot of the third quarter and turned the ball over on is first two possessions of the fourth. The Red Raiders never got closer than four points the rest of the way. Henry Ellenson's three free throws over the final 19 seconds sealed the win. Henry Ellenson finished with 24 points after scoring Rice Lake's first 13 points. No other Warrior scored until Shawn Magee hit a bucket to start Rice Lake's 9-0 run with 2:20 remaining in the first half. Ellwood Ellenson scored six points and Christman finished with five. Rice Lake was 3 of 14 from behind the arc, with Henry Ellenson hitting a trey in the first quarter and Christman and Ben Widdes connecting in the third. Central shot only 29% from the floor and was 3 of 17 from three-point range. Alex Hayden led the Red Raiders with 11 points. Shooting guard Sawyer Smith was held to five points.
Rice Lake 79, Tomah 53 Rice Lake opened Division 2 regional play on its home court Friday with a 79-53 pounding of Tomah (8-16). Henry Ellenson scored 29 points, and Christman added 19 and Magee 10 for the Warriors. Rice Lake built a 42-24 halftime bulge, but the Timberwolves clawed back to within five points in the third quarter. The Warriors finished the third strong, however, and led 56-44 entering the fourth. Two players combined for 41 of Tomah's 53 points. Junior Trey Hewuse scored 22 points and senior Matt Krause added 19. Rice Lake dominated the glass at 56-43, with Henry Ellenson's 13 rebounds leading the way. West had a big passing game with eight assists, and Magee added six.