Championship drive

Cameron junior Richie Murphy split a pair of Cumberland defenders Thursday, Feb. 13. The Comets rallied late and then won in overtime to take sole possession of the Heart O’North lead. Click here for more photos

With three impressive Heart O’North boys basketball victories – including an overtime thriller for first place over Cumberland, Cameron captured a share of the HON title and ran its winning streak to nine conference games.

The Comets sit alone in first place with just one conference game yet to play.

“At the start of the year, one of our goals was to compete for a conference championship,” Cameron coach Troy LaVallie said. “We believed we were good enough to do it, but we also knew that this year would be tough as we entered a new conference. It was an adjustment for us, but our kids never stopped believing and working towards their goal.

“After our fist win on the road at Cumberland (season opener), there was excitement, but that didn’t last as we would hit some road bumps. After Christmas break, we suffered a blowout loss to Chetek and we were 3-3 in conference. That was a real gut check moment for us. We knew we could compete but were not getting it done.

“We refocused and ran off nine straight conference wins. In the middle of that stretch, we lost our leading scorer for three games, but our kids were resilient and everyone stepped up in a big way.

“Every game has a different story line and each night it is someone different stepping up and getting us the win. This is a true team. Even the guys who don’t get a lot of minutes or any minutes during the game, play a huge role. They push us so hard in practice and are constantly pushing the guys to get better. That is one of the true keys to our success, practice every night is competitive and we get better.

“Everyone understands their role and buys into the concept of being a team. We are really excited to clinch a share of the conference championship in our first year, but we’re not satisfied. The kids want more and know that we can win it outright with a win at Northwestern in our last game of the year, and they want to make a deep run in the playoffs. As a coach, this team has everything you can ask for! They work hard every day and play as a team. They care about each other and the team. All I can say is I am so proud of them!”

Cameron is 12-3 in the HON standings (14-4 overall), a step ahead of Cumberland (12-6, 10-4 HON) and Northwestern (13-6, 10-4). Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, Bloomer and Ladysmith are in a fourth place logjam at 7-7. The Comets won’t play their final HON game until Thursday, Feb. 27, at Northwestern in the regular season finale.

Cameron will stay fresh with non-conference competition. The boys were hosting Grantsburg (11-7) on Tuesday, Feb. 18. They’ll play at St. Croix Falls (14-4) on Thursday and at Luck (12-5) on Friday, Feb. 21, then have six days to prepare for Northwestern.

Cameron 75, C-W 64

Cameron’s last loss in league play came at home Jan. 3 in a 73-55 shellacking by Chetek-Weyerhaeuser. The Comets avenged that loss in a big way, 75-64, at Chetek on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

“In our first game after the Christmas break, Chetek came to our place and shot the lights out, making 12 3s en route to a double-digit win,” LaVallie said. “We have been playing well as of late and were excited to get an opportunity to play them again. The game started out in our favor, taking a quick 8-2 lead, but after a timeout, Chetek got in a rhythm and we were tied at 19-19 with about 6 minutes left in the first half.”

The Comets rallied.

“We were able to control the tempo and force a lot of turnovers, and we ended the half with some easy baskets because of our defense,” LaVallie said. “Our 15-5 run at the end of the half was sparked by a Josh Halverson 3 and a steal followed with an ‘and-1’ by Richie Murphy.”

The teams exchanged baskets in the second half until Cameron’s press defense took control.

“We forced six turnovers and numerous bad shots, and went on a 16-2 run to blow the game wide open,” the coach said. “At one point, we had the lead up to 25 after an Austin Weis 3-point shot, but Chetek battled back.”

Some late Cameron turnovers helped the Bulldogs close the final margin to 11 points.

“Overall, we played really well,” LaVallie said. “Peyton Buzek, Mark Daniels and Austin Weiss did a great job inside on (C-W’s) Kyle Bilodeau, and our guards did a great job on the press.

“Offensively, we really moved the ball well. We didn’t shoot great, but our defense gave us a lot of easy baskets in transition. It was a big win and we had balanced scoring with five guys in double figures. Richie had a double-double with 19 points and 14 assists.

Weis scored 18 points for Cameron, Buzek 12, Payne 12 and Halverson added 11. Dakota Hermann hit three 3s and scored 20 points for the Bulldogs. Carter Hanson added 19 points and Bilodeau offered a dozen.

While Cameron was winning on Feb. 11, Northwestern fell 56-33 at Hayward and Cumberland lost 60-34 at Bloomer. Those results dropped Northwestern into third place and pulled Cameron even with Cumberland atop the HON.

Cameron 58,

Cumberland 50 (OT)

Cumberland’s Beavers visited Cameron Thursday night in a first place showdown and controlled the first half while building a 27-16 lead. However, the Comets pushed the game into overtime with a late rally and then won 58-50 in a game to remember.

“What a game!” LaVallie said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of big games in my 11 years of coaching at Cameron, but I’ve never been in a game like this – to be down almost 10 points the entire game and down 12 with 7 minutes left, and to come back and win in overtime by 8. That was something really special.

“Our kids were frustrated all night by Cumberland. They completely shut us down in the first half and most of the second half. We just could not find an answer to the box-and-one defense. We’re averaging about 70 points per game and we had 16 in the first half. I just can’t say enough about our team, and how we kept our composure and kept believing in each other.

“There were so many big moments by so many our of players. It would have been very easy for us on a night that we didn’t play our best and to give up, but they just kept battling. They showed a lot of grit tonight. I kept telling them at some point we were going to make a couple shots and go on our run.”

The Comets waited about as long as they could to find that spark.

“Usually in our games, in the second half our pressure gets to teams,” the coach said. “That really didn’t happen until about the 7-minute mark, when our offense started to score, which put a little more pressure on Cumberland.

“Ian Payne was big all game on both ends. He had 23 points and also had to guard Jack Marten, Cumberland’s best player. Ian was the one who started our comeback, hitting a pair of 3-point shots within minutes to really give us a boost of energy that we needed.

“Austin Weis hit a big 3-point shot to give us the lead in regulation. Mark Daniels came up with a big 3 in overtime to give us the lead and came up with a big defensive stop and rebound in overtime. We were five for seven from the free throw line in overtime and were able to get one stop after another on defense. Peyton Buzek had a big finish inside the paint in overtime off a pass from Richie that put us up by 3 points.”

Murphy, who was three for four from the foul line in overtime, scored 12 points for the Comets. Jack Martens led Cumberland with 16 points, while Sam Schradle and Josh Martens scored 10 apiece.

“Both teams really played their hearts out and it was a shame that one team had to lose,” LaVallie said. “In the end, we were able to make a few more big plays down the stretch, but Cumberland is a very good basketball team.”

Cameron 65, Barron 47

Playing a third big game in a span of four days, Cameron beat Barron 65-47 at home Friday, Feb. 14, in the latest round of a budding rivalry. The Comets built a big lead early to avoid a close game with the Bears after winning in overtime at Barron earlier this season.

“Right from the tip, I knew the guys came ready to play,” LaVallie said. “Our energy on defense and ball movement on offense in the first half were the best they’ve been all year. I was a little worried that we might be tired coming off an exciting but exhausting overtime win, but the boys came ready to play. They knew what was at stake and took care of business right way.”

Cameron led 24-10 midway through the first half and 38-15 at intermission.

“Mark Daniels got us going,” LaVallie said. “He and Austin Weis each had three 3s in the first half. Josh Halverson had another to make seven for the half. But our defense was the story, holding Barron to only 15 points. We turned a lot of turnovers into transition points. Our pressure really kept Barron’s offense out of rhythm. The little success they did have in the first half was pounding the ball inside to Carter LaLiberty.

“Peyton, Ian and Mark did a good job limiting Carter’s touches. He only had two field goals in the fist half.”

“Cameron is playing excellent basketball right now,” Barron coach Ky Baumgard said. “Cameron’s coaching staff has their team clicking at the right time. Cameron has too many offensive weapons for us to defend. While they had balanced scoring, we struggled getting multiple players in double digits.”

Barron had a 32-27 edge over the final 18 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to mount a comeback.

“In the first half, we didn’t shoot the ball well enough,” Baumgard said. “We shot 22% from the field. You can’t compete with Cameron shooting 22%.  In the second half, we did a better job of executing our offense and finishing our shots, which resulted in us shooting 54% in the second half. Unfortunately, we couldn’t cut the big lead that Cameron created in the first half.

“Cameron’s defensive pressure got to us at times, but overall, we did a decent job of taking care of the basketball,” Baumgard said.

“We didn’t have the same intensity as the first half,” Cameron’s coach said. “We were getting a little tired and we got a little lax on defense, but we were still able to secure the win. Barron cut the lead to 15 at two times in the second half. Their kids kept playing hard, which is a credit to them and their coaching staff.”

LaLiberty led the visiting Bears with 17 points. Daniels scored 16 for Cameron, while Weis (14) and Buzek (10) were also in double figures.

“One of the things that makes us so tough is our balanced attack on offense,” LaVallie said. “Thursday night, Ian carried us with 23 points and 10 rebounds vs. Cumberland and tonight he only had 6 points.

“On any given night, we will have a different high scorer and that makes it hard for teams. For the year, we have four guys who average double figures and two others who average 7 points per game.”