First place in the Big Rivers Conference standings was on the line Friday night in the Eau Claire Memorial gymnasium as the Old Abes took on visiting River Falls.
Thirty-six minutes of playing time after the opening tipoff proved, without question, the other seven teams in the Big Rivers now are chasing Memorial for the league title.
Memorial turned a 28-25 halftime advantage into a convincing 62-47 victory to open a two-game leader over second-place River Falls in the league standings.
The Old Abes improved to 8-0 in the league and 13-2 overall behind balanced scoring from its big three -- seniors LJ Wells (6-8), Mekhi Shaw (6-0) and Will Boser (6-6).
Wells electrified a huge crowd with four dunks, including three in the first half, en route to scoring 17 points while also hauling down nine rebounds.
An extremely vertical player, the left-handed Wells was playing his third game of the season after missing the first 12 contests.
Wells owns NCAA Division II scholarship offers from Minot State and St. Cloud State, and is beginning to receive some interest from Division I programs as well.
"LJ is an elite athlete," Memorial coach Chad Brieske said. "He makes life a lot easier for a coach because he's a 'fix it' guy. He can make up for a lot of things that might go wrong with his athleticis and size. He's a big energy guy for our team."
Couple of interesting facts on Wells, he began high school at 5-foot-11, grew to 6-foot-1 as a sophomore on the JV squad and then grew some more, to the point now where he is a long 6-foot-8 forward with a bit of shooting range in addition to his scoring prowess in the post.
Wells not only causes opposing defenses problems, but he can also wipe away field-goal attempts with his shot-blocking skill on the other end of the floor.
Shaw, meanwhile, ran the show for the Memorial offense as the Old Abes' point guard. He finished with 14 points, eight assists and three steals.
Moreover, Shaw's constant defensive harassment on the perimeter was a huge problem for River Falls all night as the Wildcats committed 22 turnovers.
Shaw missed his junior season while recovering from a torn ACL, but he appears to be at 100 percent now and recently picked up a NCAA Division II scholarship offer from Southwest Minnestoa State.
"Mekhi is the ultimate competitor," Brieske said. "He is a student of the game and knows what he has to do each contest to help us get a win."
Boser presents another set of issues for opponents as he is able to use his 6-foot-6 body to either swish perimeter shots or take smaller defenders into the paint and score over them with his size.
A NCAA Division II recruit for Concordia-St. Paul, Boser had 15 points and three rebounds versus River Falls.
Wells, Shaw and Boser, despite being seniors, have not played varsity basketball together for long as Wells and Boser played primarily on the JV squad as sophomores, and Shaw missed last year with his injury.
But the three -- along with senior Tim McBride (6-1), juniors Mason Stoik (6-5) Connor Welsch (6-6), Peter Albert (5-11) and Avery Schroeder (6-5), and promising freshman Cooper Jesperson (6-0) -- form a solid nucleus for one of the state's elite teams.
"I am very proud of how these guys have put in so much time so they can play differnet styles and win basketball games," Brieske said. "We didn't panic tonight against a very good team. We can grind out wins and we can play up-tempo and win."
River Falls, which fell to 12-3 overall under coach Zac Campbell, got a big game from steady senior Ethan Campbell, a 6-foot-4 forward who made 4-of-5 shots from three-point range on the way to scoring 16 points.
Campbell also grabbed five rebounds while handing out three assists. Campbell is averaging 11.9 ppg and 6.6 rpg for the Wildcats, who qualified for the WIAA Division 1 State Tournament a year ago but lost four starters to graduation.
Senior Michael Schurman (6-2) also performed well for River Falls, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
River Falls took a 37-35 lead with 11:20 remaining in the game on a back-door layup by Campbell off a pretty pass from freshman Preston Johnson. But the Wildcats would score just 10 points the rest of the way as Memorial slowly but surely pulled away to its victory.