Prep boys basketball: Tigers' tale a story of brotherly bonds
Harrison and Bennett Nelson lead Northwestern into the sectional semifinals.
Many reasons exist for the Northwestern boys basketball team’s success this season.
From a deep talent pool to a wealth of confidence, the Tigers have parlayed their belief in each other into a deep postseason run.
If it seems like this is a band of brothers, perhaps that’s because two of the team's key players — Harrison and Bennett Nelson — are brothers.
Harrison, a senior point guard, and Bennett, a junior shooting guard, lead the third-seeded Tigers (18-7) into a Division 3 Sectional 1 semifinal against second-seeded Aquinas (14-5) at 7 p.m. Thursday in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“They have that brotherly connection, and that goes for a lot of the kids on this team because they’ve played together for so many years,” Tigers coach Nolan Graff said.
But this marks the first — and only — varsity season that the brothers Nelson have played together.
“I’ve waited for this moment my entire life,” Bennett said. “I was so excited to get to play together this year.”
Even big brother was happy to have his younger accomplice alongside for the ride.
“Not everyone can say they played varsity basketball with their brother, it’s definitely more fun,” Harrison said. “It’s definitely nice for our parents because they can watch both of their kids in the same game.”
The pair participated in different fall activities — Harrison in football and Bennett in cross country. Those sports translated into their basketball-playing styles as well.
“He doesn’t stop running and gets lots of steals and wears down kids on the other teams,” the 6-foot, 175-pound Harrison said. “I am a little bit bigger and more rugged than he is and can guard bigger kids than he can.”
Graff says that diversity clicks on the court.
“They are similar in ways but very different in ways,” Graff said. “Harrison is more physical than Bennett. Bennett is a cross-country runner, and Harrison was a football player. Both were fantastic in their fall sports, but you can kind of paint the picture. Harrison is more of an offensive-minded player with more of an overall, well-rounded game. Bennett is a defensive-minded player who has the ability to knock down the open shot when we need it and get to the basket.”
Both brothers average close to 10 points per game, a characteristic of this Tigers squad. Seven players — led by Monte Mayberry’s 13.3 mark — average at least eight points per game. Eight players have led Northwestern in single-game scoring this season.
“That’s what makes us so dangerous,” Graff said. “I don’t know on any given night who the top two, top three leading scorers are going to be.”
That makes life easier on offense for the Tigers and more difficult for the opposition on defense.
“Anyone can be the leading scorer on any given night,” Harrison said. “If someone’s shots aren’t falling that night, we can easily have someone else step up and hit some big shots for us.”
And as Bennett said: “(Opponents) don’t know who to focus on.”
That’s been especially true during regional playoff victories over Cumberland and once-beaten Cameron, the top seed in the region.
The Tigers missed three key players for parts of the season through injury and COVID-19 protocols, but everyone returned in the past couple of weeks to elevate the team’s play.
“We feel like when we are at full strength, we’re one of the toughest teams to beat — not only in our conference but in the state,” Graff said.
Northwestern lost 75-74 to Heart O’ North Conference champion Cameron during the regular season, but was primed for the rematch last Saturday night, winning 78-68.
“They beat us by a point, and I took that personally,” Bennett said of the first meeting. “I really wanted to win, so I gave 110% that game and it felt so good to come out on top.”
That earlier loss to Cameron is the Tigers’ lone defeat in the past eight games.
Now they face the challenge of beating an Aquinas team that despite a fourth-place finish in the Mississippi Valley Conference, has allowed more than 60 points in a game only once. Northwestern averages about 78 points per contest.
“It’s two contrasting styles,” Graff said. “We’re going to try and speed them up, and I’m sure they will try to slow us down and turn it into a slugfest. But whatever the style of the game and whatever the tempo, we feel we’re primed to win at different speeds or different levels.”
The brothers Nelson are confident the Tigers can advance to Saturday’s sectional final against either top-seeded St. Croix Central or Neillsville.
“I feel like we are playing our best ball right now,” Bennett said. “We have a great shot at getting far in the postseason.”
“If we play well as a team and come out with a lot of intensity, we can keep this winning streak going and hopefully make it all the way,” he said.