By Ryan Divish
It started out as whispers, then became conversation. After a less than dominant semifinal performance, the talk around the District 9C tournament was that this year would be one of the few that Big Sandy could be beaten.
The talk was quickly silenced as the Pioneers defeated Box Elder, 59-52, to capture the 9C championship on Saturday night at the Havre High gymnasium. The win improves Big Sandy's record to a perfect 20-0 on the season.
"Everybody always says that we can be beaten, especially this year," said head coach Roy Lackner. "They come close, but they don't beat us."
In Lackner's 20-some years as the head coach, it has only happened twice.
This year's team wasn't about to become the third. Big Sandy jumped out to 12-2 lead to start the game.
After scoring a quiet 14 points in the semifinal against KG, Sheena Darlington looked be her old self. The senior center scored 10 points in the first quarter and showed why she is one of the premier players in the 9C.
"I didn't play very well against KG," Darlington said. "But the intensity for this game was just a little different."
Besides the intensity, Darlington was also aided by playing without tape or a brace on her injured knee. Both precautions affected her movement. Without either, she looked much more comfortable.
"(Darlington) really moved much better tonight," said Box Elder coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum. "She's a great player and she came ready to play tonight."
But Box Elder also has a premier player in Tami Infante. And the senior point guard wasn't about to let her team go down without a fight.
Infante scored 13 of her 21 points in the first half to keep the Bears in the game. A short jumpshot from Infante and a Brandy Lawrence putback gave Box Elder its first lead since the game's opening minutes at 26-25 with less than a minute remaining in the first half.
However, Big Sandy answered as Lindsay Danreuther made the first of two free throws while Darlington rebounded the missed second attempt and put it back in to retake a 28-26 lead. Darlington added another tough score inside to take a 30-26 lead at halftime.
The run just before halftime left the Bears teetering and Big Sandy went for the knockout in the third quarter.
The trio of Darlington, Danreuther and Ashley Goodian combined to score 20 of Big Sandy's 22 third-quarter points. Danreuther and Goodian knocked down three three-pointers while Darlington scored at will inside as Lackner spread the floor to give Darlington room to work.
"With a 10-point lead, we pulled the ball out and made them come get us," Lackner said. "It made them have to play Sheena one-on-one and she'll just kill you."
Box Elder could only counter with eight points from Ann Favel and a bucket inside from Lawrence. The Bears, plagued by turnovers and missed shots, trailed 52-39 at the end of the third quarter.
"Big Sandy is too good of a team to make mistakes when you're behind," Schwab-Hannum said. "If you make a mistake, they capitalize on it."
The Bears desperately tried to get back into the game in the fourth quarter. A three-pointer from Rebecca Eagleman, a basket inside from Favel and two scores from Infante narrowed the lead to 57-52 with a minute remaining.
But a pair of free throws from Carly Squires with 22 seconds remaining iced the game.
Darlington finished with game-high 29 points while Goodian added 12 points on four three-pointers.
Infante led Box Elder with 21 points while Favel added 14.
It was the third time that Big Sandy has beaten the Bears this season, but this game was the closest.
"From the first time we played them until now we've gotten better each game," Schwab-Hannum said. "Each game was an improvement. Maybe the fourth game will be a different story."
Said Darlington: "We need close games like this right now because it helps us for divisionals. We haven't had many this season."
Both Big Sandy and Box Elder earned trips to this weekend's Northern C Divisional in Lewistown.