By BURT ANGELI
FLORENCE, Wis. - The Wisconsin rivals, as expected, fought to the end in a WIAA Division 5 boys basketball regional opener Tuesday.
Burt Angeli/The Daily News Photo
Florence’s Connor Beaster encounters the defense of Niagara’s Patrick Moreau (10) in Tuesday’s WIAA Division 5 boys basketball regional.
Niagara's Zach Walker shoots over Florence's Lukas Gareau.
Connor Beaster registered 26 points and 23 rebounds to boost Florence past Niagara 49-44.
Beaster along with Lukas Gareau's defense and timely plays stood out. But Bobcats coach Tom Beck dispensed credit to everybody.
"Those kids really battled hard," Beck said. "It's a big rivalry, the kids know each other and the gym is packed. It was a nice tournament atmosphere."
Niagara, behind Zach Walker's 21 points, slashed a nine-point deficit to 48-44 with 27 seconds left in the game.
"The two things that we needed to do we didn't do," Niagara Coach Jim Hoogland said. "We didn't take care of the ball very well and we didn't rebound very well.
"Coming into the game those were the keys. We just weren't able to do that consistently enough."
The Bobcats (9-12), who split with the Badgers during the regular season, gained a 25-19 halftime lead when Tyler Beck nailed a triple at the buzzer. Florence also picked up a couple extra first-quarter points when a scorebook error resulted in a technical foul.
Florence held nine-point leads on three occasions in the third quarter. The Bobcats opened the fourth period with a 34-25 margin.
"We had opportunities to put them away a number of times and they would come roaring back," Beck said. "It's never easy."
Down 39-30 midway through the fourth period, Niagara extended its defensive pressure and challenged Florence. Two Walker free throws and an Adam Parent putback shaved the difference to 39-34.
Florence's Lukas Gareau made his presence known at crunch time. The senior guard, who did a creditable job defending Walker, netted all five of his points in the fourth quarter including a pivotal steal with a minute left that hiked the margin to 47-39.
"Lukas did a heck of a job," Beck said. "He played excellent defense on Walker. He came through with a couple big steals down the stretch.
"I just wanted him to shadow Walker and make him Beaster blasted the Badgers for 24 points and 28 rebounds in an early February contest. The 6-foot-8 senior was not as effective shooting from the outside but he did his damage elsewhere.
"Connor is Connor," Beck said. "The guys get him the ball."
Six other Bobcats produced at least three points.
"The kids played well, pretty solid," Beck said.
Niagara started out in a match-up zone to defend Beaster. The Badgers went to Walker later on to deny Beaster's perimeter game.
"Beaster just got loose too many times for offensive putbacks," Hoogland said. "He's going to score points. There's no doubt about it.
"He's a good ball player. I take my hat off to him. He played a nice ball game."
When Florence claimed another nine-point cushion with 49 seconds to go, Walker converted two free throws and Patrick Moreau meshed a triple in the next 20 seconds.
The Bobcats, who made just 8 of 21 free throws, got one from Matt Koenig at the 23-second mark to seal the game.
Joey Swanson and Parent each chipped in nine Badger points.
"I can't fault the boys for trying," Hoogland said. "They worked their tails off."
Florence played without starter Tyler Valine, who has been out sick.
Beck said his team appreciated the support of the home crowd.
"Playing in front of a packed house, full of fans cheering the Bobcats made for an exiting tourney atmosphere," he said. "We greatly appreciated them showing up."
Florence's season continues Friday in the regional semifinals, taking on top-seeded and M&O Conference runner-up Wausaukee. The Rangers swept Niagara twice during the regular season.
"It will be a real challenge for Florence," Hoogland said. "Wausaukee thrives on defensive pressure and turning the ball over. They get after you and play defense."
The Rangers, with a deep roster, led the M&O in defensive turnovers. They thumped White Lake 70-25 Tuesday.
"We're going to have our hands full," Beck said. "They'll pick us up (defensively) as soon we get to the Wausaukee town sign. We'll have to handle the pressure better than we did tonight."
Niagara (8-15), with Hoogland intending to return next season, graduates eight seniors - Walker, Swanson, Dyllan Pultz, Brett Pultz, Joe Coppens, Trevor Lantagne, Jacob Oratch and Brandon Holcomb.
"I want to thank the seniors for their hard work all season and during their careers," Hoogland said.
Niagara 6 13 6 19 - 44
Florence 15 10 9 15 - 49
NIAGARA: Walker 21, Swanson 9, Moreau 5, Parent 9. FT: 7-8. F: 17.
Fouled out: Swanson (:11, 4th).
FLORENCE: Koenig 4, Noeske 3, Kelley 5, Gareau 5, Beck 3, Beaster 26, Sword 3. FT: 8-21. F: 14.
3-point FG: Noeske, Kelley, Beck, Walker 2, Swanson, Moreau, Parent. FG shooting: Florence 19 made, Niagara 16-47. Rebounding: Florence 33 (Beaster 23), Niagara 23.