The Blugolds knew that Thursday night’s game was going to be different.
Right from the jump, UW-Eau Claire men’s basketball was in trouble against Aurora University’s unusual press zone defense. It caused three turnovers in the first two and a half minutes, but once the Blugolds found a way to get the ball over half court, they were able to take advantage, overcoming late exhaustion to clinch an 87-79 victory over the Spartans in the Zorn Arena home opener.
The press zone defensive scheme is a rarity in Division III basketball and something the Blugolds didn’t have much time to prepare for with just one game of film on the Spartans, who recently hired head coach Matt Airy this season. It created some problems for the Blugolds during this week’s practices, according to Blugolds head coach Matt Siverling.
“When you play a team that has different personnel from what you have, that’s really hard to simulate,” Siverling said.
Eau Claire was held scoreless for almost three minutes but eventually broke out on a 20-3 run and went up 35-21 with 3:23 to go in the first half.
“For a few possessions we probably played their game. They were trying to speed us up and make us make mistakes, which we did,” senior guard Cole Rabedeaux said. “We just needed a few possessions.”
Coming out of half, all that momentum quickly disappeared. The Spartans revved up the chaos and the Blugolds looked out of sorts.
“They started to face guard us on the press, making it hard for us to get the ball in, I think that was the big difference,” Rabedeaux said. “It made us speed up.”
That increased speed created confusion for Eau Claire, who committed 13 second-half turnovers.
“I’m sure fatigue set in a little bit from the way they were making us play,” Siverling said. “So, we started making mental errors.”
The Spartans climbed back to take a 64-60 lead with just over nine minutes to go in the second half, but moments later Rabedeaux hit a layup to tie the game at 64-64 before nailing a four-point play to send Eau Claire on a 19-4 run to put Aurora away.
“Just getting the ball over half court was big for us,” Siverling said. “We knew once we did that with the way they played that would open things up for us.”
Sophomore forward Spencer Page was able to take advantage of the Aurora defense to score a career-high 25 points, with five 3-pointers made.
“They were playing in the gaps a lot which left a lot of shots in the perimeter (for me),” Page said. “So that, and we had a lot of back door cuts, so I was able to do that and get easy looks at the rim too.”
It was the second straight game for the Blugolds in which former McDonell grad and Division II transfer Hayden Baughman did not see any game time.
“Hayden is working hard and when he’s ready, he’ll play,” Siverling said. “I don’t have high expectations of those guys, those new guys.”
As for the rest of the team, Rabedeaux is optimistic about the future after the Blugolds 2-0 start.
“There’s no ceiling on this team right now,” he said.
The Blugolds return to action on Monday to take on Superior at 7 p.m. at Zorn Arena.
UW-Eau Claire 87, Aurora 79
Aurora: Ha’ashim Keys 6, Shamar Pumphrey 14, Jake Hotwagner 9, Bailey Vance 18, Will Hrubes 13, Rashad Johnson 12, Garrett Hoffmann 2, Justin Wierzgac 5.
UW-Eau Claire: Spencer Page 25, Cole Rabedeaux 18, Blake Wacholz 4, Cam Kuepers 9, Carter Brooks 15, Clay Kujawa 8, Adam Link 2, Luke Reader 6.
3-pointers: Aurora 10 (Pumphrey 2, Hotwagner,, Vance, Hrubes 2, Johnson 4), UW-Eau Claire 8 (Page 5, Rabedeaux 2, Kuepers).
Halftime: UW-Eau Claire 47-34.