VERONA — For Ben Probst and his Madison La Follette teammates, Thursday was about not looking ahead.
Certainly not to a WIAA state boys basketball tournament now in limbo, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
And, really, not even to Saturday — and a potential rubber match with arch rival Madison East in a Division 1 sectional final.
Instead, the top-seeded Lancers lived in the moment and had fun Thursday night, dispatching fifth-seeded Waunakee 83-67 inside a nearly empty Verona High School gymnasium.
“Honestly, we didn’t talk about it at all,” Probst said of the tournament’s uncertain future. “We just treated it like another game.
“Actually, Coach kind of talked about how (we should) just treat it like an elementary school game. You’re out there for the love of basketball — just to have fun.”
The final score might have been the only thing that went according to plan for Probst & Co. Teams across the state played to diminished crowds, thanks to a WIAA mandate meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
But venue policy at Verona and within the Madison Metropolitan School District limited attendance further, allowing access to only “essential personnel.”
“Atmosphere adds stuff, I get it. It’s cool to be a part of that,” said La Follette coach Curtrel Robinson, whose team won handily despite having All-State guard Isaiah Stewart foul out with more than 5 minutes remaining.
“But I just told them to play the game that they love tonight. They locked in on that, and we brought our own energy.”
The Lancers seized control with a 19-0 run that began midway through the first half. Sophomore forward Juok Riak scored six consecutive points to kick things off, and La Follette came to life offensively — showing the form that earned them the top spot in The Associated Press Division 1 state rankings for much of the regular season.
By the time Waunakee coach Dana Mackenzie signaled for a time out to interrupt the run, his team already trailed by 20.
“These guys are just different when it comes to their mental preparation for the game,” Robinson said. “They stay focused. They focus on what they can control, and they don’t focus on what they can’t control.”
The Lancers led 45-22 at the half, and their advantage hovered in double digits the rest of the way. Waunakee rallied late to cut the deficit to 72-62 with 3 minutes left, but the Warriors drew no closer.
“That’s a really good team,” Robinson said of Waunakee. “They’re not here by accident, by any means.”
Derek Gray led the way with 18 points for La Follette, with Riak adding 17 and Probst 12. Caden Nelson scored a game-high 22 for Waunakee.
Despite the fact that Saturday’s game will again be played without fans — and the state tournament won’t be played at the Kohl Center, if it is played at all — the Lancers simply planned to proceed as normal. And that meant preparing for another shot at East, which handed La Follette its only defeat of the year, a 90-85 decision on Feb. 21.
“We’re really excited,” Probst said. “We’ve definitely been wanting them. They gave us our only loss this season, (and) we’ve kind of had them targeted from (then) on, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Waunakee 22 45 — 67
Madison La Follette 45 38 — 83
WAUNAKEE (fg ft-fta pts) — Nelson 6 7-8 22, Keller 6 3-4 15, Zibell 4 1-2 12, Dotzler 1 3-3 6, May 0 2-2 2, Driscoll 1 0-0 3, Hough 1 0-0 3, Novinski 1 0-0 3, Fischer 0 1-2 1. Totals 20 18-23 67.
MADISON LA FOLLETTE — Gray 9 0-0 18, Riak 8 1-4 17, Gibbs 5 3-3 14, Dakovin 5 2-2 12, Probst 2 4-6 9, Stewart 4 0-0 8, LaShore 2 1-1 5. Totals 35 11-16 83.
3-point goals: W 10 (Zibell 3, Nelson 3, Dotzler 1, Driscoll 1, Hough 1, Novinski 1); ML 2 (Gibbs 1, Probst 1). At Verona.
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