Winning the Great Northern Conference is likely out of the question at this point in the season for the Lakeland Union High School boys' basketball team, but each game left on the schedule is crucial to seeding for the playoffs.
The Thunderbirds had a big opportunity, not only to pad its resume, but to extract some revenge on Thursday with a trip to Medford, before coming home for a non-conference game against Cadott on Saturday.
In both games, Lakeland cruised to easy wins, using a stifling defense to hold both opponents to less than 40 points, marking the first time the T-Birds have accomplished that feat in back-to-back games since the first two games of the 2011-2012 season.
Lakeland sideline boss Rich Fortier was less than pleased with his team's performance in a 53-44 loss at home to Medford.
Since that time, the loss dropped the T-Birds to .500 on the season, but since then, they rattled off wins in six of its previous seven heading into Thursday's game.
The first time around, the GNC's leading scorer Cam Wenzel hit six 3-pointers and scored a game-high 23 points. This time around, Lakeland suffocated the Raiders on offense, allowing just 11 points in the first half en route to a 61-35 romp.
"We came out and put the wood to them in the first four or five minutes. We were up 20 before we knew what hit us and from there it just kept ballooning," Fortier said. "Our defense was pretty impressive. We didn't play a stitch of anything but man. We had a pretty good game plan against Wenzel. We held the conference's leading scorer to 10 and made some of their other guys make plays to beat us."
Basketball is a game of runs and Lakeland used two big ones at the start of each half to create a cushion.
The T-Birds scored the game's first 12 points and jumped out to a 15-2 lead eight minutes into the game.
"It was not a wild, blood-in-the-water, feeding frenzy sort of thing. It was a pretty slow burn," Fortier said. "It was the first six or seven minutes where we didn't let them score. It wasn't like we were tearing it up, we were just playing great defense. The second half was a different story."
In the second half, Lakeland's offense began to match its defense. The T-Birds started the final 18 minutes on a 23-5 run and eventually led by as many as 34.
It's rare to put a quality opponent away with 10 minutes left in the game, but that's exactly what happened as Lakeland shot 55 percent from the field and only committed 10 turnovers.
"We closed the door really early in the second half. We just kept scoring," Fortier said. "Typically you say to your team, 'There's going to be a run.' We didn't really talk about a run. (Medford) is relentless, they talk about it all the time, but it's hard to be relentless when you're getting punched in the mouth over and over. We just kept doing that."
Jonathan Jurries led Lakeland with a game-high 19 points, while Santana Barnard and Connor Evenhouse had 14 apiece.
The defense wasn't quite as stifling to start Saturday's game against Cadott, but the offense was lethal from the start.
Lakeland put its entire repertoire on display. The T-Birds made shots from the outside, from the post, on drives, in transition, on dunks and passed the ball well in a 76-39 win.
"Even out of the post, we shared the ball well with some nice slashing cuts. I also thought we o-boarded well," Fortier said. "Offensively we were good and we've been saying it all year long. We know we can play at that end of the floor. It's the other end of the floor that will determine our season. Right now it's determining our season and because of that, we're winning more than we're losing."
Lakeland hit six 3-pointers in the first half to build an early lead, but Cadott was able to keep it close by scoring on offense.
Then, with the score 29-18 with 6:36 left in the first half, the T-Birds began to dig in defensively. Lakeland held the Hornets to just two points in the next six minutes and four during the remainder of the first half and it wasn't close after that.
The T-Birds feature some high-flyers, but pushing the tempo on the fastbreak hasn't been a staple of the offense this season, but the defense forced turnovers that led to several easy baskets in transition, including two dunks from Barnard and another from Jurries.
"I think a lot of that was steals on the perimeter. We just took the ball and that led to a lot of leak-outs," Fortier said. "We don't do it a ton. I love to have Gunnar (Weitz) leading that and I encourage other guys to get on the break. Johnny's done a good job of getting the ball up the floor quickly. Santana does a nice job of that on occasion."
Barnard led all scores with 19, while Jurries had 14, Weitz added 13, Evenhouse chipped in nine and Collin Quade pitched in a career-high eight off the bench.
Lakeland (13-6, 7-3 GNC) plays its final home game of the regular season tonight against Antigo at 7:15 p.m.
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter@SabatoNick.