DARLINGTON — It was the kind of game, Fennimore senior Derek Kephart was born to play in.
The aggressive, physical senior forward was the key to Fennimore’s 47–42 upset victory over top-seeded and fourth-ranked Darlington in Saturday night’s WIAA Division 4 regional final.
Fennimore coach Troy Larson deployed a diamond-and-one defense with Kephart hounding Darlington senior standout Stryker Fitzsimons for all 36 minutes.
Kephart took advantage of the physicality the refs were allowing and held Darlington’s leading scorer to just four points in his final game. He also scored seven points in the victory, three more than his season average.
Fennimore’s scoring trio of senior Reid Larson (12 points), junior Kellen Kenney (12) and sophomore Adam Larson (10) made just enough shots on the other end as the Golden Eagles avenged their two regular season losses to the SWAL champion Redbirds.
Darlington (20–3) scored over 60 points in their two victories over the Eagles this season, but were held to a season-low 42 points in Saturday’s loss.
Witht the victory Fennimore (20–4) claimed the program’s first regional title since 2015 and just its second since 2006.
That 2015 Fennimore team, led by senior Zach Adkins, finished the regular season 6–16, but made a memorable run through the Division 5 playoffs before falling to Shullsburg in the D5 sectional semifinals.
The 2006 team, led by WBCA All-Star selections Kevin Everson and Derek Hubbard, won its first 24 games and a SWAL title before ending the season with a 57–38 loss to Westby in the WIAA D4 sectional finals.
“It just an unreal accomplishment for the kids and our program,” said Fennimore head coach Troy Larson of Saturday’s regional championship victory. “We knew at the beginning of the year how are our regional was going to be. But this a testament to the kids. They kept working hard all year and they believed in themselves. We proved when we play with confidence that we can play with anybody.
“Everyone knew Fennimore could be could this year, but maybe didn’t think we could reach this level. I saw some things early in the year that made me believe we could. They kids bought in early on and they have been great at staying the course. It’s a long season, and we talked about it halfway through. Some teams stay the same, some get worse and some getter better. We were at a point where they had to decided what kind of team they wanted to be, and it is obviously showing they chose to get better.”
The Redbirds scored the first five points of the game and led the entire first half, but never could pull away from the Eagles.
A basket by sophomore Cayden Rankin gave the ‘Birds their largest lead of the night at 18–9 with around six minutes remaining in the half, but a 3-pointer by Reid Larson with 2:09 to play in the stanza capped an 11–3 run that brought the Eagles back within a point at 21–20.
Fennimore got the ball back with under a minute remaining and were trying to hold for a final shot until Lancaster swiped an errant pass and drove in for a layup at the buzzer to put Darlington up 23–20 at the intermission.
A basket by senior Bryce Stone put Darlington back up by three early in the second half, but the Eagles ran off the next 10 points to turn a 25–22 deficit into a 32–25 advantage.
Adam Larson kicked off the rally with a 3 and a long 2-pointer a short time later to give Fennimore its first lead of the night. Then, Kenney knocked down a pair of clutch baskets to put the Eagles up by five with 11 minutes to play.
The ‘Birds got back within one of a trey by senior Blake Whalen with 6:39 left, and stayed right on the Eagles’ heels thanks to a pair of 3s by senior Trae Schilling and another trey by Stone with 49 seconds remaining to cut the Fennimore lead to 43–42.
The Eagles went 4-for-4 from the free throw line over the final 37 seconds of play with Reid Larson and sophomore Warren Adam each sinking two foul shots to put the victory away as Fennimore held on to claim the regional title.
“The first few minutes, we had to get acclimated to the officiating,” said coach Larson. “Obviously, all games are officiated differently. We went down 7 of 8 early, but once we got acclimated we were able to adjust.
“Derek Kephart went to town on Stryker Fitsimons and took him right out of the game,” said coach Larson. “Derek Kephart and his defense on Stryker Fitzsimons was the definitely the key to our win. Our other kids did a good job on defense too. Adam played a key in the paint with blocking eight shots. Adam has the ability to affect both ends of the court more than he knows. Having his length, Reid’s length and Kellen’s quickness that can make things difficult for the other team.”
Fennimore’s diamond-and-one not only took out Fitzsimons, but it also limited sophomore Carter Lancaster to just six points.
The Fitzsimons-Lancaster combo netted 18 points in the Redbirds’ 61–50 win at Fennimore on Dec. 18, and then teamed up to score 30 points in a 60–41 win at DHS on Feb. 1.
Reid Larson finished with 12 points on 4 of 9 shooting, to go along with six rebounds.
Kenney finished with 12 pionts, seven assists and five rebounds. Adam Larson added 10 points, eight blocks and six boards. Kephart finished with seven points and five rebounds.
Both Larsons, Kenney and Kephart played the entire game for the second night in a row.
“That’s a tribute to those kids and their conditioning,” said coach Larson. “They are willing to work and willing to give it their all for the entire game.”
Adam, senior Logan O’Brien and junior Jacob Young each scored two points in the win.
“Warren gives us a little more quickness on defense side-to-side,” added Larson. “We needed Logan’s size and physicality against Darlington and I was also able to get Jacob Young the game and he was a threat around the him with his soft hands and scoring capability around the rim. We just wanted to make them play us more honest.”
NEXT: Fennimore advanced to face 7th-ranked and second-seeded New Glarus (22–2) in a D4 sectional semifinal game in Reedsburg on Thursday, March 7, starting at 7 p.m.
The Golden Eagles will again have their hands full with the high-scoring Glaner Knights. New Glarus is averaging more than 77 points a game, led by four-year varsity starter Jaden Kreklow, who scored a season-high 42 points in a regional semifinal victory over Mineral Point Friday night. He averages a team-high 22.6 points per game.
“Again it will be an absolute dogfight,” said Larson. “Between Reid and Adam they have played with six of their players during AAU growing.
“They are quick. They are very physical. I think its going to be like the Heights game, with both teams being very explosive on offense. With their athleticism they are going to put a lot of pressure on us in the front court. They are very similar to us. They have a lot of great basketball players and they obviously know how to win too.”
WIAA Division 4 Regional Final
Fennimore 47, Darlington 42
(from Saturday, March 2 @ Darlington)
Fennimore 20 27 — 47
Darlington 23 19 — 42
Fennimore (20–4) — Adam Larson 10, Reid Larson 12, Logan O’Brien 2, Kellen Kenney 12, Jacob Young 2, Warren Adam 2, Derek Kephart 7. Totals – 18-39 8-14 47.
Darlington (20–3) — Cayden Rankin 5, Trea Schilling 6, Blake Whalen 9, Bryce Stone 8, Stryker Fitzimons 4, Carter Lancaster 6, Matthew Douglas 4. Totals – 15 2-6 42.
3-point goals — F: 3-6 (A. Larson 1-2, R. Larson 2-4), D: 6 (Schilling 2, Whalen 2, Stone 2). Total fouls – F: 8, D: 15. Fouled out – none.