Somehow the most hyped and the most attended game of the high school boys basketball season lived up to its billing.
Both Central and Onalaska put their cards on the table, with the Hilltoppers firing away from the 3-point line and the Red Raiders forcing their way to the basket again and again.
Central withstood each Onalaska run, however, and extended its lead at each key turn, to come out with a 74-60 victory in the WIAA Division 2 sectional semifinal Thursday held in front of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 2,000 people at the Logan Fieldhouse.
Top-seeded Central (23-2) advances to sectional final, where it’ll face the surprise team of the section, fifth-seeded Marshfield (14-11), in the sectional final at 1 p.m. Saturday at Stevens Point. Onalaska ends its season 20-4.
The Red Raiders — the defending Division 2 state champions — dominated much of the first half, but a 13-3 run by Onalaska over the last 5 minutes before halftime brought the Hilltoppers within 37-29 at the break.
Onalaska senior Noah Skifton then buried two 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half to pull his team within 38-35. But Central had an answer, getting baskets inside from sophomores Johnny Davis and Terrance Thompson, then a pair of fast-break layups off Hilltoppers turnovers that put the Red Raiders back up by eight, and despite a strong 3-point shooting night, Onalaska never got closer the rest of the second half.
“In the locker room, our coaches talked about us being a young team, but tonight, we played like veterans,” said Davis, who was almost unstoppable on Thursday. He cut along the baseline and converted a layup through a foul to answer another Hilltoppers’ 3, and then completed a three-point play on the next possession.
Davis had 24 points on 8-for-11 shooting, and made seven of his 12 free-throw attempts while pulling down a game-high eight rebounds.
Skifton was the Hilltoppers’ most consistent threat, as he scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the second half, making six 3-pointers.
“He’s a tough kid,” Onalaska coach Craig Kowal said of Skifton. “He’s a winner. I’m proud of him. He carried this team, and he showed the younger kids the ropes. He had a heck of a career here.”
Onalaska freshman Sam Kick had 12 points, all on 3s, with three of them coming in the second half. Senior Landon Skemp added a pair of 3s as well, as Onalaska finished 12 of 29 from beyond the arc. The problem was the Hilltoppers never found holes in the paint or in the mid-range.
A big reason for Onalaska’s struggles inside was Thompson, a 6-foot-7 forward. He and Davis, who stands 6-5, blocked or altered nearly every shot in the paint. Thompson tallied seven blocks to go along with his 17 points and five boards.
“Him being there changes a lot of things. He blocked a ton of shots and changed our drives. He did a great job,” Kowal said of Thompson.
Even after Central began to slow the game down at the 6-minute mark, Onalaska made one last push to get within eight after a pair of free throws from Skifton. But Red Raiders junior guard Noah Parcher answered those points with a three-point play and essentially sealed the win.
Parcher was a handful for the Hilltoppers. He scored 21 points of 8-for-12 shooting, and dished out five assists. Parcher, who was a starter on last year’s championship team, said Central showed poise in the face of Onalaska’s comeback attempts.
“We knew to just handle the adversity,” Parcher said. “If they go on a run, we know we can go on a run right back.”
Davis added: “We just wanted to make them shoot contested shots. When they beat us, they had a lot of dribble penetration and kick-out 3s, and that’s why we lost. Today, we tried to make them shoot contested shots.”
Central coach Todd Fergot said he and the team will celebrate the win for just a couple of hours before turning the focus to Saturday and the Tigers. He said although the team’s goals involve a gold ball in Madison, it knows it just knocked off a very talented team.
“(Onalaska’s) seniors, Skifton and Skemp, are phenomenal leaders,” he said. “They did a great job for them and they’re going to battle you right to the end. They gave us everything we could possibly handle.”