By George Ferguson
When you come in to a state basketball tournament ranked No. 1 and undefeated, you are usually accompanied by a large target on your back with every other team gunning for you.
Unfortunately for the Big Sandy girls basketball team, someone hit that target. Still, the Pioneers regrouped to capture third place at the Class C state basketball tournament in Butte this weekend.
The Pioneers entered the tournament with a perfect 24-0 record and remained that way with a first-round defeat of Circle on Thursday. But Big Sandy faced a bigger and deeper Charlo team on Friday night in the semifinals and finally succumbed to defeat, 56-37.
The Pioneers bounced back from their first loss of the season to take care of Reedpoint, 54-51, in loser-out action. On Saturday night they knocked off Twin Bridges, 44-40, in the consolation game to garner third-place honors.
"I am very pleased with what our girls accomplished this weekend," said Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner. "This tournament was loaded with talented teams and there were some great games. For us to come back after the Charlo game, and beat Reedpoint and Twin Bridges on the same day, is a tremendous accomplishment."
The Pioneers' first loss of the season on Friday was a matter of one quarter that did Big Sandy in. The Pioneers and Vikings played a very close first half, and Charlo led 23-18 at intermission. Big Sandy was hampered in the first half when Sheena Darlington got into early foul trouble and missed much of the first 16 minutes.
In the third quarter, the Vikings were able to pull away by outscoring the Pioneers, 17-5, to open up a 40-23 lead. From there Charlo held off the Pioneers to advance to Saturday night's championship game.
"We went through a stretch in the third quarter where we did not shoot the ball well at all," Lackner said. "When that happens against a quality opponent like Charlo, it is going to be tough to come back on. The third quarter was definitely the difference for us in that game."
In the loss to the Vikings, the Pioneers got 15 points from Lindsay Danreuther and 11 from Darlington.
On Saturday morning, the Pioneers were able to put aside the disappointment of the previous game by downing a very good Reedpoint team, 54-51, on Saturday morning. In that loser-out contest, Big Sandy held a slim lead of 30-28 at halftime and then held Reed Point at bay in the second half to advance to Saturday night's consolation game.
In the win over Reedpoint, the Pioneers were paced by Ashley Goodian's game-high 23 points - including five three-pointers. Darlington chipped in with 18 points and Linda Givens added 12.
On Saturday night, the Pioneers again faced an uphill struggle as they beat the Twin Bridges Lady Falcons, 44-40. In the first half, Big Sandy fell behind 18-17 in a slow-paced defensive struggle. Again, the Pioneers were faced with some foul trouble that forced Lackner to go to his bench.
"We had a couple of freshmen in Naomi Williams and Sara Yirsa really step up and give us some critical minutes in this tournament," Lackner said. "And on Saturday night we had to play them in some very tough situations. They really came through and helped us stay in it in the first half."
The Pioneers then exploded for 15 points in the third period to take the lead. Big Sandy held off Twin Bridges in the final minutes of the contest by knocking down some critical free throws to grab the third-place trophy.
Darlington and Goodian again paved the way for the Pioneers on Saturday night. Darlington scored a game-high 15 points and Goodian chipped in with nine. Goodian's night included a perfect three for three from beyond the three-point arc.
"To beat Twin Bridges was a tremendous victory for this team," Lackner said. "Ashley stepped up and hit some big threes for us, and I thought the whole team really played well the entire tournament, but especially on Saturday night."
After the tournament Darlington and Danreuther were both named to the first team all-tournament team.
The third-place finish ends a tremendous season for the Pioneers, who had a superb 26-1 overall record.
"I felt like most of the season we were overrated as far as being the number one team in the state," Lackner said. "But to get third place in this competitive of a field at the state tournament and to finish with the record we have is a tremendous credit to this team and how hard these girls have worked. It is a very satisfying feeling and one that we are all very proud of."