All season the Lakeland girls basketball team has been making life miserable for opposing teams with relentless, full court defensive pressure.

On Jan. 25, at Rhinelander, they got a taste of that misery themselves as the Hodags rattled Lakeland’s rhythm, in the first half of the game, with a frenzied, full court defensive attack.  The pressure allowed the Hodags to keep their distance all game and they would go on to defeat the Thunderbirds, for the second time this season, 81-63.

But just because they were being pressed didn’t mean Lakeland changed their game. The T-Birds pressed all night as well and caused their fair share of turnovers, making for a high-flying game full of traps and fast breaks on both ends of the floor. 

Lakeland ,though, struggled mightily with Rhinelander’s pressure early on, throwing a number of balls away or directly to the Hodags to start the game. But practice makes perfect and the more the T-Birds saw the trap, the more comfortable they got breaking it.

“We got a little rattled with the press which is not like us,” Lakeland head coach Melissa Ouimette said. “Maybe nerves were playing a factor just a bit, but I had to burn some time outs and tell them to calm down and run the press bake, because once we would do our press bake we would score at the other end a lay-up. So we kind of battled back and forth between turning it over and lay-up turning it over and , but we finally settled in and started handling their press just fine.”

Though when Lakeland was struggling, Rhinelander was scoring, allowing the Hodags to build a 21-15 lead midway through the first half.

But it wasn’t the usual suspect, star guard Kenedy Van Zile, who was doing the damage, and that was by design. 

Coach Ouimette was determined not to let Van Zile torch the T-Birds like she did the last time they met. 

To prevent this she charged Emma Salquist and Sophia Myshchyshyn with full time duty on Van Zile, guarding her all night as if she had the ball, whether she did or not, and in the first half the plan worked as Van Zile was held to just 12 first half points. 

“(Sophia) Myshchyshyn did a great job not letting (Van Zile) get the ball,” Ouimette said. “Emma Salquist did a great job not letting her get the ball, and she pretty much was in single digits until she got hot hitting a couple threes.”

Unfortunately for the Thunderbirds, Van Zile’s teammates were ready to step up, in particular, Brooke Marks and Cynthia Beavers who combined for 17 first half points, with Marks getting 11, including three three-pointers, and Beavers scoring six, helping the Hodags build a 35-29 halftime lead.

The game was kept that close by Lakeland with their transition game.  

When they did break the Rhinelander press, they were on their way to the hoop. Leading the way on most fast breaks was senior Thunderbird star Mel Bruckner, who flew up and down the court for 18 first half points.

“She had an incredible game,” Ouimette said. “She’d steal that ball and she’d bring it full court all the way in for a layup and nobody was going to stop her.”

The second half began much the same way as the first with both teams pressing and fast breaking to the hoop, but Rhinelander eventually began to seriously separate.

This was partly due to the gamut of picks Lakeland’s defenders had to fight through to follow Van Zile ,and when she got a bit of space she made the Thunderbirds pay.  

Van Zile scored 16 in the second half and hit four shots from behind the arch.  

Beavers also went off for 16, taking advantage of back side cuts and offensive rebounds for bunny shots. 

Lakeland though would not go away and got 11 points from Abby Parris in the second half, another nine from Bruckner, and six from Joeli Koehler to stay in the game. 

The Thunderbirds never went on a serious drought in the second half, but neither did the Hodags and bit by bit Rhinelander pulled away for good with the 81-63 win.

“My girls gave it their all,” Ouimette said. “In fact, after the game tonight I told them I was proud of each one of them and that they played with their hearts. They played hard, but Rhinelander made some tough shots. You got to give them credit.”

Lakeland’s Mel Bruckner led all scorers with 27. Abby Parris finished with 16 for the T-Birds. Rhinelander was led by Van Zile’s 26 points, while Beavers added 22. 

Lakeland, now 10-6 overall, falls to 6-2 in the Great Northern Conference, two games behind the Hodags who are undefeated at 8-0. 

The T-Birds next played Amherst at home on Monday past deadline. Coverage from that game will be in Friday’s paper.

Jacob Friede may be reached at jacob@lakelandtimes.com or sports@lakelandtimes.com.