George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor firstname.lastname@example.org GREAT FALLS
When it comes to tournament time, balance can be critical. So can poise under pressure. And those are things that the Big Sandy girls basketball team possesses, and it's a big reason why, after the Northern C Divisional tournament in Great Falls, the Pioneers are still undefeated. On Saturday night at the Four Seasons Arena, Big Sandy had to do what it had done all weekend hold off a team mounting a furious second-half comeback. On Friday night, it was the previously unbeaten Highwood Mountaineers, and in Saturday night's championship game, it was the upstart Belt Huskies. And the Pioneers did hold the Huskies off, 69-59, to claim yet another Northern C title for veteran head coach Roy Lackner. Big Sandy didn't win the Northern C without its share of scares. In all three games, the Pioneers led big in the first half only to see those leads evaporate late in the game. But Big Sandy's balance, and its veteran players, made sure the Pioneers wouldn't miss out on the Class C state tournament for a second straight season. "It's really an unbelievable feeling," Big Sandy senior Morgan Darlington said. "It's been an amazing season, and it's a lot of fun to play with this team." In the championship tilt, the Pioneers (23-0) came out hot, as point guard Josi Herron hit three 3-pointers on her way to a game-high 25 points. Herron's early shooting, and Big Sandy's presence inside, led to the Pioneers leading 18-6 at the end of the first quarter, and 33-23 at halftime. But in the second half, Belt wouldn't go away, especially early in the third quarter when the Huskies got the lead all the way down to six points with just six minutes left to play, as they started making three's from seemingly everywhere. However, the Pioneers, led by veterans like Darlington, Shersteen Cline and Laci Keller, weren't going to fold, and they went on a 19-4 run to put the game away by the midway point of the fourth quarter. "I think they (Belt) underestimated our ability to shoot from the outside," Lackner said. "They packed it in on us, and we were able to knock down shots. We were especially good when they made that run at us in the third quarter. "And Josi really stepped up and did some nice things for us," he added. "Most importantly, she took care of the ball and she kept her composure. Then, she hit her shots when they were there. Actually, this whole team was really composed this weekend. We got everybody's best shot in this tournament, and these players stayed composed when things got tough." Herron led the Pioneers to the Northern C title with four three's and her best all-around game of the tournament. And it's that kind of balance that makes the Pioneers so tough to defend. In three games in Great Falls, Big Sandy had three different leading scorers. "It doesn't matter which one leads us," Lackner said. 'They all can score. That makes us pretty tough to beat when we're on our game." Said Darlington: "It seems like it's somebody different every night. Even if somebody is having an off night, we know we will be ok. Tonight, Josi stepped up big. Last night, Kourtney Danreuther had a great all-around game. We really do have a lot of balance." While Herron led the way on Saturday night, the Pioneers, were as usual, balanced on offense. Danreuther scored 14 points and Cline chipped in with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Keller, who had a great tournament for the Pioneers, added 10 points in the win. Big Sandy got to the championship game by pulling a Houdini act on Friday night in a highly-anticipated showdown with Highwood. The Pioneers rolled to 20-9 first quarter lead over the No. 2 Mountaineers, and led 38-24 at halftime. However, the talented Mountaineers started to chip away at the lead in the third quarter, and eventually ripped off a 17-5 run to make the score 54-49 with 5:19 left in the game. And even without star Rachel Semansky, who fouled out early in the final stanza, the Mountaineers continued to push forward. Katie Schipf hit a shot to make the score 57-55, and with :26 remaining in the contest, Katie Bahnmiller got Highwood even closer by nailing a long 3-pointer. But in the final seconds, Big Sandy made a free throw, and Schipf couldn't convert on a gametying foul shot, and the Pioneers held on for the 61-60 win in a game that lived up to the hype. Darlington paced the Pioneers with 15 points and 12 boards, while Cline scored 14 points and Danreuther had 13. Big Sandy's championship means the Pioneers, along with Belt and Highwood, will move on to the Class C state tournament. Big Sandy will play the No. 2 team from the Eastern C Divisional, which will be contested this weekend. The Class C state tournament will be March 6-8 at the Special Events Center in Belgrade and the Pioneers will come in as the only undefeated team in the field. "We feel good about our chances," Lackner said. "In a way, we wish we didn't have that week off because I think we're playing pretty well right now. But we'll just work hard these next two weeks and get ready to play. It's exciting that both our teams are going to state this year."