UNION TOWNSHIP -- It had been over 13 months and a span of 23 games since Wheeler's last win on Jan. 17, 2020.
In a season of losses, postponements and cancellations, Wheeler finally had something to smile about Wednesday, knocking off LaCrosse 50-45 to 'Rep The Dub' in 2021 for the first time.
"It might say one in that win column but it's a one at the right time of the year," Bearcats coach Steve Baumgartner said. "We've been in some games. We've played three (quarters), we've played good halves against some pretty solid teams. This is the first time we've played four quarters. We just couldn't put it all together and tonight we did. We told them, you're playing in your home gym for the last time this season, you've got to need it more. They showed that energy of not wanting it, but needing it."
Nobody showed it more than bouncy 6-foot-3 junior Blaise Evensen who piled up 15 rebounds to go with 14 points.
"It feels great to get the win," Evensen said. "It's the first win of the year. It feels wonderful. Having the crowd there, it was a total different energy from the beginning of the season when no one was there, and it was just quiet. Then the band came, and there was even more energy, and it was just great. They were into it."
The music and an enthusiastic student section brought life to the Wheeler gym and the Bearcats thrived off it with a more than two-to-one advantage on the glass.
"We've been preaching it all year. This game's going to come down to rebounding and who wants it," Baumgartner said. "Blaise has been amazing on the boards all season. He's almost got that Dennis Rodman mentality. It's going to be mine. He's flown into the bleachers, on the floor. He wants every single board. He accepts that role."
Freshman River Halsey complemented Evensen's inside work with 15 points.
"Once I made the first one, I just got my flow going and shooters shoot," Halsey said. "We been working toward it all season. It feels good to finally get one. The hype was crazy."
LaCrosse (4-16) led most of the way until a 11-2 third-quarter run, sparked by Evenson's inside work, swung it to Wheeler (1-13).
"They took advantage of our lack of size outside of our one guy," Tigers coach Preston Frame said. "When we were in our man to man, we didn't adjust. They kept running the same weak-side screen and curl. We didn't bump cutters, we didn't go under screens like we talked about becuase they don't shoot the 3 well. I thought their bigs were slower on the perimeter, but they could throw multiple bodies at (Ben Garwood)."
The Tigers' 6-foot-4 junior, sporting a black eye and a couple gimpy ankles, managed 21 points, keeping LaCrosse in range in the fourth quarter. Blain Rust's 3 tied the game at 38 with 3:21 left. In what proved to be a pivotal sequence, Rust couldn't convert a steal to even the game at 42, and Carson Grabek scored in transition for Wheeler. After a Garwood miss from the arc, Halsey dished to Evensen on the break for a layup that quickly spiked the lead to six.
"Every game I feel like when there's a critical play, it goes against us," Frame said. "I thought he got fouled. I thought there were a couple travels, too. Instead of having a chance to tie, we go down six. The momentum swings just doesn't seem to go our way."
LaCrosse had one last gasp as Kyle Gorski scored inside, then hit three free throws to bring the Tigers within one possession in the final 10 seconds. Grabek, who scored six fourth-quarter points, iced it with two foul shots at 5.7.
"It's the first time we've had that experience, having a lead and having to protect it," Baumgartner said. "In a game like this, you can't panic. We showed some poise there. The scoreboard may not show the wins, but in the games, watching the film, you see the growth, you see the young kids getting better. Cole (Kostbade) is a three-year varsity guy, but everybody else is really getting their first true varsity minutes. Carson played some last year, and now he was expected to do big things. He made some plays at the end."
The game was postponed almost literally at the last minute Monday, when LaCrosse was almost at the school only to find out there was a roof leak and the floor was unplayable. It was supposed to be Wheeler's fourth game in six days, the result of all of its schedule interruptions. The Bearcats played just seven games in December, not starting its season until Dec. 5, and January, and seven since.
"I told the guys, if we can string some actual games, we can get a rhythm, start getting game experience," Baumgartner said. "We've lost seven games, four to COVID, three to weather. We've got COVID, snow, who would've thought we'd get rained out inside. Luckily, we were able to get it rescheduled."
Wheeler won its first game of the season Wednesday, 50-45 over LaCrosse, breaking a 23-game losing streak. (Photo: @WHSScore)