By George Ferguson
Thursday night at the District 9C tournament was not kind to Blue Sky High School. Two hours after the Blue Sky girls team was upset by Box Elder, the Eagles boys team suffered the same fate at the hands of the third-seeded Big Sandy Pioneers as they fell, 55-46, in semifinal action.
The Eagles, who came into the tournament seeded second, had knocked off the Pioneers twice during the regular season. But coming into Thursday night's battle, Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner was confident in his team's chances against the Eagles.
"We knew we could play with Blue Sky because both of our losses to them were very close games," Lackner said. "I said coming into tonight, that if we stuck with what we do well, we would have some success against them and that is exactly what happened tonight."
The first half of the contest was a defensive struggle as both teams played to a slow pace and traded baskets. The Eagles held a 16-15 lead after one period and the teams each scored nine points in the second quarter as neither team gained more than a three point edge with the Eagles holding a 25-24 halftime edge.
While the game was close at halftime, Blue Sky head coach Brian Campbell admitted the pace of play did not favor his troops.
"The style of play tonight was not conducive to us having a lot of success," Campbell said. "We needed to get out and push the ball and create some scoring chances. We just couldn't seem to ever sustain that type of offensive flow.
"But you have to give a lot of credit to Big Sandy because they played their game," Campbell added. "They are big and physical and they defended us really well tonight."
Despite the slow pace, it was Blue Sky who was the first team to open up a lead of more than three points. The Eagles went on a 8-2 run in the third period and ended the quarter on a Keenan Toner three-pointer to open up a 38-32 lead heading in to the final period.
But in the fourth quarter, the Pioneers scored 12-unanswered points in a five minute span - during the stretch junior Gage Brumwell dropped in eight points. The run gave the Pioneers a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play.
The Pioneers Jay Jamieson, who had been quiet from the field all night, hit four big freethrows in the final seconds to seal the Eagles' fate.
One of the biggest factors in the Eagles not being able to respond to the late Pioneer surge was their lack of three-point shooting. The Eagles, who normally shoot better than 35 percent from behind the arc, hit just 6 of 23 from three-point range against the Pioneers. Both coaches agree that it was the key to the game.
"We wanted to take the three away from Lipp and Toner tonight," Lackner said. "I thought Jay and some other guys did a great job on the perimeter. We just didn't let Lipp and Toner beat us. They are phenomenal players and we were able to take that shot away from them."
Said Campbell: "Going six for 23 from the three-point line hurt us. It was a combination of our kids rushing their shot a little and Big Sandy's defensive effort, but it was a major factor."
Lackner also credited his players' patience offensively as another key to their victory.
"I have said all year, that if we are patient on offense, we can have success against anybody," Lackner said. "And tonight we were patient and took good shots and it showed what kind of team we can be when we do that."
The Pioneers got a game-high 20 points from Brumwell and Chris Yirsa chipped in with 12. The Eagles were paced by Ryan Wells with 13 points.
Blue Sky will now move on to face Hays-Lodge Pole tonight at 8:30 p.m. in loser-out action.
The Pioneers advance to Saturday night's championship game against the streaking KG KouGars. The final battle is one that Lackner sees as being very even.
"We split with KG this year and both games were close," Lackner said. "Both teams know each other very well and I think it should be a real good ballgame."