Postseason basketball started Monday.
The Blair Bears, a few days removed from their first win since Jan. 15, had to beat Schuyler in Class B Subdistrict 5 Tournament play at Bennington to continue on. They were motivated to do so.
“It was all the seniors, really,” BHS junior Jacob Czapla said. “I don't really want to watch them leave us.”
Leo Clarke, Morgan Rump, Caden Ulven and Nolan Ulrich didn't have to call it a high school career after a 48-34 win over the Warriors. Against the host Badgers the next night they didn't have to either.
Instead, coach Chris Whitwer's Bears earned a 54-53, come-from-behind victory they won't soon forget. The road team trailed by 13 going into the fourth quarter, and by seven with just 2 minutes remaining, but still earned a district finals appearance.
The BHS coach couldn't quite explain how his team pulled it off, improving to 10-11.
“If I had the secret, I'd bottle it up and sell it,” Whitwer said, later giving his players credit for their resilience. “They had every opportunity to say, 'Well, it's spring season.'”
But the winter campaign rolls on despite a 52-45 deficit with 2 minutes to go. Ulven was the first to cut into that Badger lead, hitting an acrobatic layup with 1:46 left.
Bennington notched a free throw on its next possession, but so did Kip Tupa on the Bears' following trip. The difference was the BHS point guard hitting his shot as he was fouled, pulling his team within 53-50.
After another stop, Blair's Luke Ladwig used two screens and an accommodating rim to even the score from beyond the arc. His long-range shot found the bottom of the net, tying the score at 53 less than a full minute after the margin was seven.
“Luke's a great basketball player,” Whitwer said.
Once Bennington turned the ball over with 6.7 seconds left, the junior guard wearing No. 12 had another opportunity to prove it. He dribbled the length of the court, crossing the ball over to his left hand, pulling up and taking a shot with less than a second remaining.
That's when Ladwig was fouled.
“This moment is what you're made for,” Whitwer said of his message to the spotlighted Bear. “This is what you do.”
Ladwig missed his first freebie short and a timeout was called. He didn't miss the second, though, and the Blair student body soon raced onto the floor, celebrating with the victors.
Whitwer said positive energy and playing for each other were key. The Bears believed and they pulled it off.
Bears best Schuyler, too
Prior to 2021's marquee win over the Badgers, though, Blair also bested Schuyler in the teams' second meeting. BHS moved to 3-2 with its Dec. 15 win against the Warriors, but had since went just 5-9.
Just three days before the rematch, the Bears snapped a six-game losing skid with a win at Crete. Ulven said that victory was pivotal.
“It was huge,” the senior said. “It was huge to come into tonight with a win on our back and keep the momentum going.”
After an 11-11 first period, Blair also went into halftime against Schuyler with momentum, 24-21. Whitwer's team slowed the game down before the break, holding the ball for one shot, which Tupa hit on a pull-up leaner.
“We were just trying to value each possession,” the coach said.
The Bears' lead improved to 36-26 after a 12-5 third period. Ladwig scored all eight of his points during the quarter, knocking down three shots, including two 3-pointers. One of those long-range makes Whitwer credited to Czapla, who drove the ball to the rim against Schuyler, creating scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
“He was a really good spark for us,” the coach said.
Czapla was only one of several Bears Whitwer mentioned. Tupa's work as a ball handler and Ulven's offensive rebounds stood out, too.
“I felt like we had different guys step up and do good things,” he explained.
But Schuyler didn't want its season to end for seven seniors either. It scored the first two buckets of the fourth period and held BHS scoreless for the first 3:15.
“Whenever Schuyler did a good job making a run on us, our guys did a good job responding,” Whitwer said.
The key response of the fourth came from 6-foot-4 Wyatt Ogle. The junior caught the ball in the post with 4:45 remaining, backed his man down and drop-stepped to the hoop for an easy 2.
“Wyatt Ogle, man, he's just like a Mack Truck,” Whitwer said. “When he decides he's going to the rim, nobody can stop him. He's so strong and he can just back guys down.”
Czapla scored the next bucket, pushing the Bears lead back to 10, 40-30.
“Wyatt kind of pushed us to start scoring again,” he said.
From there, Blair closed the Warriors out, extending their season by, at the time, a day. Rump, one of those four BHS seniors, capped the game with a steal-and-score layup.