By Ryan Divish
Box Elder head girls basketball coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum will be the first to admit that this year's team has exceeded her expectations - and then some.
The Bears moved into Saturday's District 9C championship game with a slender 49-48 win over the second-seeded Blue Sky Eagles in semifinal action Thursday night at the Havre High gymnasium.
Coming into the season with a roster that included just three seniors and seven underclassmen, Schwab-Hannum was realistic, if not optimistic.
"Honestly, at the beginning of the season, I would have been happy finishing .500," Schwab-Hannum said.
Instead, the Bears are staring directly at a possible 9C championship and a berth at the Northern C Divisional.
But all of it didn't come easy. In fact, it barely came at all. Blue Sky didn't get to be the second seed in the tournament without reason.
The Eagles tore out to an 8-0 lead as the Bears struggled to find their shooting range from as close as 3 feet.
"We couldn't hit anything," Schwab-Hannum said. "The girls were looking at me with the look of 'why won't anything go in?' They were so nervous. I just kept telling them to shoot the ball and relax."
It was a mixture of nerves and adrenaline that fueled both teams early on in a frantic pace of play that featured loose balls, diving bodies and turnovers.
Box Elder wasn't able to score until 2:56 remaining in the first quarter on a Brandy Lawrence bucket inside.
After Lawrence's score, the cover on the Bear basket was lifted ever so slightly. The Bears scratched out points trying to cut into the Eagle lead. Conversely, the Eagles cooled after the hot start and went through a four-minute scoring drought.
"We started out on fire," said Blue Sky coach Liz Olsen. "But we went through a slow spot. I don't know how long we were stuck on 10 points. It seemed like a long time."
Blue Sky broke the drought with seven minutes left in the half, but couldn't hold off the charging Bears.
Box Elder cut the lead to one at 22-21 on a tough baseline jumper by Chassidy Parisian. Another score inside by Parisian gave Box Elder its first lead with 1:18 remaining. Tami Infante added a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining in the half to push the lead to 25-22.
It's a lead the Bears held through the third quarter. Blue Sky continued to chip away in the fourth quarter, but Box Elder had an answer.
After the Eagles cut the lead to three early in fourth quarter, Codi Raining Bird knocked down a pair of key three-pointers to push the lead to seven points at 43-36.
Still Blue Sky wouldn't quit. After being held quiet for much of the game, the Eagles started going to 6-1 center Jessica Patrick.
Patrick, who had scored just eight points in the first three quarters, scored on three Blue Sky possessions to cut the lead to three.
Lawrence answered for Box Elder with a score inside to push the lead to 47-42. But a driving basket from Lindsay Anderson, a subsequent steal by Anderson and a nifty bounce pass to Kaila Warren cut the lead to 47-46. Blue Sky grabbed its first lead since the first quarter on a short jumpshot from Anderson.
After Blue Sky knocked the ball out of bounds under the Box Elder basket, the Bears set up a play and got a wide-open look for Lawrence, who converted the layup to take a 49-48 lead.
Blue Sky had two opportunities to win the game as both times they worked the ball into Patrick. The first try drew a foul on what looked to be a shot attempt by Patrick. However, the referees ruled that Patrick was fouled on the ground - giving Blue Sky possession underneath its own basket again. This time Patrick did get a shot off but her 10-foot bank shot was a little hard.
"I was really proud of the girls for how they played," Olsen said. "It's not easy to come back from a seven-point deficit against Box Elder. It's a game we could have won and probably should have won."
Infante and Raining Bird led the Bears with 11 points apiece while Lawrence and Parisian scored eight each.
Patrick led Blue Sky with 16 points while Anderson added 14 points in the loss.
Box Elder will face top-seeded and top-ranked Big Sandy in the championship game on Saturday night. The winner is assured of a Northern C Divisional berth while the loser could possibly play in a challenge game.
"We prepared so much for Blue Sky, we didn't even think about Big Sandy," Schwab-Hannum said. "We just have to keep doing what we have always done. We certainly won't play like we already made divisionals."
Blue Sky must try to rebound after a very tough loss to still have a chance at divisionals. The Eagles will face Hays-Lodge Pole in loser-out action.
"I think we can come back," Olsen said. "They want to win and win badly. We still have some work to do starting tomorrow night."