The first time Lakeland Union High School played Rhinelander it held Owen White - the unquestioned top player in the Great Northern Conference - to just 16 points. The problem was, Junior Howard and Brad Comer combined for 45 points as the Thunderbirds lost by 37.
On Friday the two teams reconvened, this time at Lakeland and the game plan was to stick to the Hodags' role players and make White beat them.
The plan worked. The T-Birds held Howard and Comer to 10 points apiece and they held Rhinelander to just 39 percent shooting. The only problem was Lakeland turned the ball over 18 times, compared to just four by the Hodags. On top of that, White exploded during a 19-4 run with his team down eight in the second half.
Still, the T-Birds were in the game in the waning moments thanks to a 3 for 12 performance at the free throw line by Rhinelander. The Hodags missed a free throw and Lakeland brought down the rebound with 16 seconds left, trailing by two. With little pressure, the T-Birds turned it over.
Another missed free throw led to an offensive rebound. Yet another free throw resulted in a missed heave by Gunnar Weitz from half-court that fell short in a 53-51 loss.
"We probably should have called a timeout to get something with 16 seconds left and go from there. But I thought we had the ball corralled," LUHS head coach Rich Fortier said. "It was a snapshot of the game."
The game went in favor of Lakeland for most of it. The T-Birds were able to get high-quality looks in the paint and forced Rhinelander to take some contested shots from the perimeter.
Lakeland also won the rebounding battle, 39-25. One area that has hampered the team all season, particularly in losses, has been the knack for falling in love with the 3-pointer.
The T-Birds shot 15 for 19 inside the arc, while going just 4 for 18 outside. Rushed 3-pointers during crucial moments or outside shots with no teammates underneath the basket in case of a miss hurt any chance to avoid the late-game sequence that eventually occurred.
"Our shot selection gets reliant on the 3-pointer. Of course, when it's going it's great, but the 3-pointer is a fickle lady and she was fickle again for us tonight," Fortier said. "And for them. But when they needed to make them - just give credit to Owen White, he made some tough shots."
Jonathan Jurries and Connor Evenhouse made back-to-back 3-pointers to put Lakeland up by eight points with 14 minutes to play.
Then Owen White took over. He answered with two consecutive triples of his own to ignite the 19-4 run that turned an eight-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
White went just 4 for 13 from deep for the game, but he made three of them during the spurt to take the lead. Ultimately, the threat of the 3-pointer caused the T-Birds to abandon some defensive technique and Rhinelander was able to drive for easy baskets.
"When they were down eight, Owen White said, 'OK, I'm gonna play. I'm going to make some plays now,'" Fortier said. "They other thing they did well in coming back and building a lead was they got to the rim. We left our feet on the perimeter and dribbled right through us to get to the rim. Comer got at least three of those. (Brock) Lieder scored a big one. So I thought that really hurt us."
White eventually finished with a game-high 27 points to go along with 10 rebounds, but Lakeland had someone who dueled with him throughout the game.
Santana Barnard was a vision of what the T-Birds did well in the game. He shot 8 for 9 from the field - all 2-pointers - to score a team-high 18 points, while also pulling down a career-high 18 rebounds.
"He's a pretty good weapon. When we finally started to crack them to get back into the game, they pressed us and we got to the rim," Fortier said. "We changed the game a little bit, just by going to the rim. Johnny hit a little floater in the lane. We have to keep them from bothering us in the backcourt by making them pay when we get to the rim. There are times we have to get better at that when we see them again, because I'd love to see them again. You have to play somebody (in the playoffs) and I have no qualms about playing anybody, including them."
Weitz scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Jurries pitched in 12 for Lakeland.
Rhinelander, the lone unbeaten team in the GNC, now has a stranglehold on first place in the standings, winning its 13th consecutive game in the process.
The Hodags also extended their winning streak over the T-Birds to 14 games, including 12 in a row against the former Rhinelander boss, Fortier. There have been some tough losses during that streak, but losing in a game where the plan worked and they literally threw it away may make this one the toughest to swallow.
"We had 37 shots and 18 turnovers. Basically a third of the time we had the ball, we turned it over," Fortier said. "We can't win a game with a 14-turnover differential. We shouldn't have even been in that game with that kind of differential. I guess that's a testament to the things we did well, which was rebounding, which was getting to the rim, which was playing some semblance defense and the defensive rebounding was pretty good. It's hard to overcome a 14-turnover differential."
Lakeland (8-6, 4-3 GNC) looks to bounce back tonight with a game at Northland Pines. Tip is set for 7:15 p.m.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.