Try as it might, Fall River simply couldn't stop the impressive physical strength and size of the visiting Columbus basketball team Friday night.
With close to 900 people crammed into Fall River's tiny gym to watch the showdown of neighboring schools, it was the physicality and skill of Columbus that wound up winning out.
Clinging to a 31-29 lead early in the second half, Columbus got a pair of breakaway dunks from senior Nolan Stauffacher to take an insurmountable 42-34 lead on the way to a convincing 80-66 triumph.
Football standouts Jaymeson Sullivan (6-foot-5, 255), Colin Selk (6-5, 290) and Nathan Cotter (6-3, 175) led the way for Columbus, which improved to 10-4 under first-year coach Jeffrey Downing.
Sullivan finished with a team-best 20 points, scoring in the paint but also knocking down two three-point shots and finishing six-of-seven from the foul line.
Selk added 13 points and made nine-of-10 foul shots while Cotter, the team's starting quarterback on a 14-0 squad that won the WIAA Division 4 state title, added 14 points.
Sullivan, Selk, Cotter, Stauffacher and senior point guard AJ Uttech (6-2) also provided Columbus with a big rebounding advantage, which helped to keep Fall River's fast-break in check for most of the contest.
All of that production was necessary as Fall River got a career-high 36 points from senior Cullen Rauls to make things interesting until the end.
Just 24 hours prior to the victory over Fall River, Columbus dropped a 58-57 decision to Capitol North Conference rival Lake Mills.
The ability to bounce back with a win on the road over a team ranked second in the most recent WSN Coaches Poll among WIAA Division 5 schools was definitely a positive for the Cardinals as they head into the stretch run of their season.
"I love the way we responded after last night's loss," Downing said. "We have five senior starters so senior leadership is a big part of our team, and tonight it showed."
Columbus, a Division 3 school, beat its counterpart by punching the ball into the post. From there, the Cardinals did an excellent job of scoring near the basket, finding a cutter diving to the hoop or kicking the ball back to the perimeter for a jump shot.
"We know where we want to get the basketball," Downing said. "We want to get it inside. Our post play was great tonight. We have guys who can make jump shots, but primarily we want to get the ball inside."
With beefy and athletic forwards like Selk and Sullivan, getting the ball inside usually leads to positive results.
Selk, a Mankato State football recruit, is among five seniors on the roster who figure to play sports in college.
Uttech recently committed to UW-Stevens Point for basketball while Stauffacher is being pursued by UW-Stout, among others, for hoops.
Cotter and Sullivan have yet to make commitments, but both are being recruited for football.
"Those guys are athletes," Downing said. "They are absolutely pure athletes."
Uttech, one of the better scoring guards in the state, was held to just 11 points, 10 points below his average.
But his passing, defense, rebounding and ability to direct the Columbus offense were key to the Cardinals' triumph.
"You can't say enough about AJ's performances the past three weeks," Downing said. "He's making us better by getting his teammates involved. If we play together, I like our chances against anybody."
With upcoming home games against Lakeside Lutheran and Milwaukee Academy of Science, Downing and his squad will get the opportunity to notch a couple of more impressive wins to their already legitimate body of work.
Even in dropping their second of 17 games this winter, Fall River figures to benefit from playing a bigger school like Columbus.
For one thing, the Cardinals are really good so the competition level was racheted up a few notches from Fall River's normal schedule in the Trailways West Conference.
For another, Columbus has much more size and physical strength than most, if not all, of the Pirates' opponents.
"Our two losses this year have come to bigger schools," said veteran Fall River coach Arnie Oelke. "This game tonight will help us in the long run if we learn from it. With the crowd and atmosphere that was in here tonight, I think that can also help us come tournament time."
Fall River's other loss this season came at the hands of Division 4 Deerfield, but the Pirates continue to lead the Trailways West standings heading into Tuesday's game against host Pardeeville.
The stellar play of Rauls is a big reason why Fall River is considered a threat to contend for the WIAA Division 5 state crown in March.
The shifty point guard was able to shake free of Columbus defenders much of the game en route to scoring his career-high 36 points.
Rauls missed almost all of his junior season with an injury, but has come back strong and leads the Pirates in scoring at 18.1 ppg. He made five three-point shots against Columbus while also scoring off drives to the basket.
"Cullen is a fun player to watch in the open court," Oelke said. "They controlled the boards very well and were able to take our running game away.
"But this is still the type of game we expect from Cullen. If he has success, then our other players will have success, too."
In addition to the 36 points from Rauls, senior Colin Vieth (6-3) reached double figures for Fall River with 15 points.
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