LAKE MILLS — Charlie Bender loves to play against Watertown.
The Lake Mills junior forward has had some of his best games against the team his father, Jim, played for in the mid-1980s.
As a freshman, he scored 17 points in a home win. Last year, he had the game-winning steal and layup in the closing seconds to give the L-Cats a victory at Watertown High School.
On Saturday, Bender was dialed in again as he scored a game-high 20 points to lead the L-Cats to a 71-43 rout against Watertown in their non-conference prep boys basketball home opener.
Bender and senior teammate Matt Johnson each hit four 3-pointers on the night and combined for 23 first half points to help the L-Cats pull away before the break. Lake Mills has won all four meetings since this annual series was established, and Bender has had a hand in three of those wins.
“It’s always nice to go up against them, because obviously, my family went there,” Bender said. “Going into that game, it’s always an extra thing. I’ve got to go beat them and then I’ve got to go home and brag to my dad. I’ve got to let him know. They’ve been games to remember. It’s always fun. It was even better at their place last year, hitting the game-winner.”
Lake Mills (1-1) just missed having five players finish in double figures and forced Watertown (0-1) into 18 turnovers. While the L-Cats drilled 10 shots from 3-point range, the Goslings finished just 3-of-16 from distance and 4-of-13 from the free throw line.
Two key spurts turned what had been a 19-11 game into a huge double digit lead for the L-Cats. Johnson hit an open 3 near the corner and Bender hit one from the top of the key before converting a steal during a 7-0 run that pushed the score to 34-16. The hosts closed the half with another 7-0 run. Junior point guard Drew Stoddard drove the lane and scored, then converted a half-court steal. Bender stole the ensuing inbounds pass and beat the buzzer to make it 44-18 at halftime.
The L-Cats opened the second half on an 8-0 run, with Bender starting the run with a 3 from the corner.
Senior guard Mike Herrington and junior forward Jaxson Retrum each added 11 points while Stoddard finished with eight.
“This is a pretty veteran team for the first time in a long time,” Lake Mills boys basketball coach Steve Hicklin said. “We’re not really young. We’ve got a lot of seniors and juniors that have been on varsity two to three years, so they hit the ground running this year. Even though a lot of them went pretty deep in fall sports, we didn’t get a lot of practice time, but luckily, we’re a veteran group.”
”We shoot pretty well when we are at home. What I was pretty happy with was our defense. I thought that fueled our offense in a lot of ways. Since we got some easy buckets and built up a little bit of a lead, we could play more laid back and relaxed. It all kind of stems from our defense and the type of pressure we were able to put on them.”
The first Lake Mills team to beat Watertown four years ago went to state. The L-Cats finished 16-8 the next year and improved to 18-6 last season. They look like they mean business this time around.
“For us, practices to begin the year have been more intense than the last two years,” Bender said. “We do a lot of shooting during practice and it’s really up-tempo and it’s easy to transfer that into games. That’s how we like to play. We like to play fast. That’s how we’ve been since we were young.”
Watertown sophomore guard Oliver Meyers scored seven of his team-high 10 points in the opening minutes before the game got out of hand.
“Ollie Meyers had a really good game,” Watertown boys basketball coach Travis Moulton said. “For his first varsity game, he really played well. He handled the ball well and scored 10 points.”
Watertown had trouble finishing inside the arc as well. The turnovers only compounded the problem. The L-Cats deserve some of the credit for the lopsided score, while the Goslings deserved some of the blame in Moulton’s mind.
“I think it was a little of both,” Moulton said. “They played a very good Stoughton team the first game. They played them really tough and ended up losing by nine, but were right there until the very end. They are a seasoned team, and it’s not just the seniors. You’ve got Johnson and Mike are seniors, but Bender is a really good player, Stoddard is a really good player and so is Retrum.
“They’ve got a bunch of guys. They have a winning mentality. They know how to win. But we didn’t play very good. We tried to get into the running game with them. We pressured for 36 minutes. Our thought process behind that is we are a deep team. We have 10, 11 guys that we will play. They play six to seven, so we thought maybe we would get them tired, but honestly, I don’t think we did.”
”We’re going to try to get up and down more and try to use our depth as a positive, but we weren’t used to playing that way today. They came out shooting really well. They didn’t shoot it really well against Stoughton, so I kind of felt that they were going to. Once you see it go through the net, confidence lingers with everybody.
”I thought we had two really good weeks of practice. I am shocked that it ended up the way it did, but it did. It’s nice that we get to look at ourselves in the mirror and see what we can fix. I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can play. We’ve competed hard in practice.”
Lake Mills hosts Marshall on Tuesday. Watertown was originally scheduled to host DeForest on Tuesday, but the game has been pushed back to Thursday. The Norskies don’t have enough practices in yet because some of their players were on the football team which won the Division 3 state title two weeks ago.
LAKE MILLS 71, WATERTOWN 43
Goslings 18 25 — 43
L-Cats 44 27 — 71
Watertown (fg-ft-pts) — Oiler 2-2-6, Meyers 4-0-10, Foltz 1-0-2, Nailing 2-0-4, Stas 2-0-4, Wehner 1-0-2, Gapinski 1-1-3, Rowedder 1-0-3 Pauly 1-1-3, Stramara 1-0-2, Roberts 2-0-4 Totals 18 4-13 43.
Lake Mills (fg-ft-pts.) — Herrington 3-4-11, Stoddard 4-0-8, Retrum 4-3-11, Bender 8-0-20, Johnson 5-2-16, Horkan 2-0-5 Totals 26 9-11 71
3-pointers — W (Meyers 2, Rowedder) 3, LM (Herrington, Bender 4, Johnson 4, Horkan) 10. Total fouls — W 15, LM 16