LITCHFIELD — Trailing the Dragons on the road 41-31 midway through the second half, John Mueller and the Watertown-Mayer boys basketball team knew it would be an uphill battle to come out on top Friday. They put together a 15-5 run in the final few minutes to tie the game, but Litchfield’s timely three-pointer to break the stalemate 49-46 couldn’t be matched on a final Royal possession.
“Being down 10 points to Litchfield is really like being down 100,” Mueller said. “The timeouts Coach Janikula called really helped us down the stretch. It just helped us focus on what we had been doing well to that point — keeping up our ball movement. So we slowly worked our way back.”
The first time these two teams met, Watertown-Mayer embraced their best style of play — patient, halfcourt offense and gritty team defense. The Royals beat the Dragons at their own game that night, 42-31 in a grinder.
The first half of play Friday seemed like it would shake out the same way. Three-pointers by Mitchell Burns and Will Hensel put the Royals up 12-7 just seven minutes into the game, taking advantage of Litchfield’s collective tunnel vision guarding Mueller — something that many teams have attempted in the second half of the season. W-M is learning how to make their opponents pay for that decision with players stepping up into aggressive roles behind Mueller.
“That balance of scoring helps us stay in games,” Mueller said.
Now, the Royals aren’t a bona fide outside shooting team, and that’s no secret. Litchfield deployed a 2-3 zone at times and it forced the perimeter players to make tough decisions with the ball in spots they weren’t normally put in.
“I’m kind of surprised teams haven’t zoned us more,” head coach Kent Janikula said. “Kids have stepped up for us. Tonight they did everything they could to stop John, and they have the bodies to do it.”
Watertown-Mayer trailed at the break 25-21 thanks to a last-second triple from Dragon point guard Tyson Michels on a broken play — a play that was, pound-for-pound, the difference in the game. A strong opening to the second frame by Litchfield pushed the lead between seven and 10 points for a majority of the final 18 minutes.
After being hounded by two or three defenders when receiving the ball and not making a field goal in the first half, Mueller got into the teeth of the Litchfield zone and cashed in at the free throw line to kickstart his 10 points on the night, none more crucial than a wing three-pointer on a kickout from Albert Rundell that cut the Dragon lead from six to three with two minutes left.
Rundell then cut through the middle on the next possession and finished a three-point play to tie the game at 46 while the clock ticked under a minute. A strong defensive possession ended in a three-point make from Ben Alsleben to finalize the score at 49-46, Rundell’s last-second heave at the buzzer just missing.
“They made one more play than us. They have two really good players [in Avery Liestman and Michels],” Janikula said. “Some bounces didn’t go our way, but I thought we were light years ahead of Tuesday (a 36-33 loss to Rockford) in terms of our effort and competing.”
This matchup with Litchfield had its moments of opening up in terms of pace. When the Royals struggled to get clean looks against the zone, they used some Litchfield misses to run in transition and get a few points back. Knocking down six shots from beyond the arc added value to their scoring too. Being more comfortable in those aspects of offense will come in handy during the postseason, where it’s likely the Royals would face uptempo teams in Minneapolis North and Blake.
“It’s going to be quite the shift in the playoffs,” Janikula said. “We’re looking forward to opening up a little more now. It’s hard; our conference plays slower for the most part. A quick shot is basically a turnover against Litchfield. We have two more non-conference games left and I’m excited for those to see what we can do.”
The Royals will have to wait until next season to try for their first regular season sweep of Litchfield since 2017, but the grudge match this year is pretty likely in the Section 5AA quarterfinals; if the first two games are any indication, intensity and competition will be at peak levels.
“I’m really excited to hopefully play them again,” Mueller said. “I think they’re a great game for us.”
Burns scored a team-high 12 points, while Mueller added 10 points and 10 rebounds. Rundell scored 11 with four rebounds and four assists, continuing to prove his playmaking ability at point guard with Wyatt McCabe slowly coming back to full strength off the bench.
Watertown-Mayer falls to 7-5 on the year with six games left, notably a rematch with Annandale sandwiched between non-league games against strong teams in Belle Plaine and Lester Prairie.
For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the March 6 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information.
Follow Jared Martinson on Twitter: @JaredNHR