MADISON – There are big wins. And then there are really, really big wins.
The Xavier boys’ basketball team’s 81-74 victory over top-ranked Ripon on Thursday afternoon definitely qualifies as gargantuan in the mind of head coach Matt Klarner.
The Hawks connected on 11 3-pointers and shot nearly 60 percent from the field in upending the Tigers in a WIAA Division 3 state semifinal at the Kohl Center.
The win catapults the Hawks to the championship game for the third consecutive season. Xavier (27-0) will play Prescott (24-3) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kohl Center.
“I’m incredibly proud of our basketball team,” Klarner said. “I’ve been there for six years now and I would say that this is probably the biggest win that we’ve had in our program and that’s saying a lot, because we have won a lot of basketball games and won a lot of really big basketball games.
“But watching on film how talented (Ripon) was, we knew that we had our work cut out for us.”
Ripon (26-1) entered the game as the top-ranked team in both the Associated Press and wissports.net coaches’ poll. The Tigers boasted 6-foot-8 senior Bennett Vander Plas, an Ohio University recruit who entered the game averaging 19.5 points and 12.3 rebounds, as well as leading scorer Eddie Muench (23 ppg).
But second-ranked Xavier set the tone from the start with its fantastic trio of guards Hunter Plamann, Sam Ferris and Cal Christensen dictating tempo.
Plamann scored 19 of his 22 points in the first half on 8-of-11 shooting. Ferris was just as potent, scoring 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting as the Hawks raced to a 45-33 halftime lead.
“I think it started in warmups,” Ferris said. “Just getting a good sweat and knocking down some shots and get the confidence up on warmups and then translate it to the game.”
A 3-pointer by Christensen at the buzzer gave the Hawks a bit of a momentum bump heading into the break.
“That three at the horn was big,” Ripon coach Dean Vander Plas said. “We knew that (Xavier) would give up the two to get the three and we talked about that and that baseline drift and (Christensen) knocked it down. That hurt us a little bit there.”
Xavier finished 7-of-11 in the first half from beyond the arc and that put Ripon in the unusual position of playing from behind.
“I thought we got great shots in the first half. I was really happy about it,” Klarner said. “We had some really good looks at it and I think the experience of being out there on the floor before definitely plays a part in it. They were comfortable and sometimes you have to miss a couple to get your squad going, but I think these guys were ready when the ball went in the air and got great looks and knocked them down. That was really, really key for us.”
Xavier, which lost to Waupun 59-58 in last year’s championship game and to Brown Deer 74-60 in the 2015 title game, used some of that big-game experience, Plamann said.
“I think we kind of had to lead our team today,” Plamann said. “Because me and Sam playing here last year, we have some experience and I think that helped out.”
The Hawks kept up the pace in the second half, with Christensen and Will Schlicht playing pivotal roles.
The Tigers made a strategic move to put Muench on Plamann in an attempt to slow down the Xavier junior. That opened up things on the outside for Schlicht and Henry Egan, with both connecting for 3-pointers within the first five minutes of the half.
Christensen added a layup off a steal to keep the Hawks’ lead at 57-45. Ripon got within four points on three occasions, with the final coming at 1:29 on a 3-pointer from Melvin Lee.
The Hawks held strong, hitting just enough free throws (5-of-8) to keep the Tigers at bay.
“I thought defensively our guys really played well today,” Klarner said. “I thought we were outstanding in the rebounding department (39-24 advantage). Those two things really stand out to me and another is having two ball handlers (Plamann and Ferris) who make things easier down the stretch.
“But still nothing is easy. (Ripon) was out there trapping and extending and I thought our guys did a great job of handling it down the stretch and making some clutch free throws to put the game on ice.”
Ferris finished with 25 points to lead the Hawks and also had seven rebounds. Schlicht (12 points) and Christensen (10) also reached double figures, with Nate De Young also finishing with seven rebounds and two blocks.
The Hawks are one win away from their first WIAA state title in basketball. Prescott will be a formidable foe, with 7-foot-1 Northern Illinois recruit Owen Hamilton averaging 24.6 points and 12.3 rebounds for the Cardinals. He scored 33 points on 14-of-15 shooting and had 11 rebounds in Prescott’s win over Lake Mills in the other semifinal.
“I think it’s going to be a difficult matchup,” Klarner said. “They have the big kid in the middle and he is the focal point of what they do on offense and defense. He causes a lot of problems, so that’s going to be something that we’re going to have to figure out.”
Ripon: Vander Plas 21, Muench 26, Pick 4, Lee 15, Merrill 4, Morrin 4. Totals 29 12-17 74. Three-pointers: Vander Plas 3, Lee. Fouls: 22.
Xavier: DeYoung 6, Schlicht 12, Plamann 22, Ferris 25, Christensen 10, Egan 6. Totals 25 20-26 81. Three-pointers: Ferris 4, Plamann 2, Schlicht 2, Egan 2, Christensen. Fouls: 16.