By George Ferguson
Every boys basketball coach in District 9C warned anyone who would listen that this week's district tournament was wide open.
A few also warned that the fourth-seeded KG KouGars just might be the team to beat.
The KouGars didn't disappoint as they captured yet another District 9C tournament championship by defeating the Big Sandy Pioneers, 57-45, Saturday night at the Havre High gymnasium.
The win caps off an impressive final month of the season in which KG won its last six regular-season games as well as going 3-0 this past week in Havre. Veteran KouGar head coach Charlie Robinson credits timing for his team's recent fortunes.
"Things have just really come together at the right time for us," Robinson said. "We got healthy and we have started to really come together as a team. We're playing basketball like I knew this team was capable of from the beginning of the season."
According to Robinson, the run to the District 9C title may not have been possible if it were not for a bad loss at Box Elder just over a month ago.
"We went to Box Elder and ended up getting beaten pretty soundly," Robinson said. "I felt like that was kind of a turning point for us because I really got on the kids after that game. From that point on, they seemed to be a lot more responsive to being coached and we have been playing well ever since."
Despite the loss in the title game, Big Sandy is also feeling good about what it accomplished this week in Havre. The Pioneers will advance to the Northern C Divisional tournament along with KG. It is history in the making, according to Pioneer head coach Roy Lackner.
"This is the first time, since Big Sandy has been a Class C school, that our boys program has qualified for a divisional tournament," Lackner said. "It also the first time we have reached the District 9C championship game so we are very proud of that fact."
The championship tilt started out as many people anticipated. KG and Big Sandy are two of the more physical squads in the conference and both showed early that they were going to go inside and be patient offensively, playing to a 10-10 first quarter.
The two teams continued to trade baskets into the second period until the KouGars finally broke away on an 8-0 run which was capped off by a Casey Crites steal and layup that gave KG a 20-14 lead with just over three minutes until halftime. But the Pioneers answered with a 6-2 run to finish the quarter, leaving the score at 22-20 at intermission.
In the third quarter, the KouGars opened with an 11-2 run in the middle of the period and finished the quarter by outscoring Big Sandy, 14-5, to take a 36-25 lead with eight minutes remaining in the game.
KG maintained its lead by taking good shots and asserting sound defense in the fourth quarter. Conversely, the Pioneers could not get on track offensively down the stretch and never got any closer than eight points.
Big Sandy's shooting, or lack there of, was the decisive factor, according to Lackner.
"It was just one of those nights when the ball didn't go through for us when we had to have it," Lackner said. "It is tough to beat a team like KG when the big shots aren't falling and they just didn't fall for us tonight."
The Pioneers were also hampered by the fact that they played almost the entire game without point guard Adam Butler.
Butler suffered a deep thigh bruise at the end of Thursday night's semifinal against Blue Sky. Despite his best efforts, he was not able to go in the second half on Saturday.
"We were a little thin with players and I think that hurt us a little," Lackner said. "But Calen Heppner and Devin Genereaux gave us some valuable minutes tonight."
Robinson was pleased to see three players finish in double figures on the night.
"I think that Big Sandy's decision to diamond-and-one Casey Crites was to our advantage," Robinson said. "It allowed some of our other guys like Tyler Kapperud and Richie Melby to step up and hit big shots. I think taking away Casey helped the rest of our guys get involved and they all stepped forward and led us tonight."
Melby led all scorers with 23 points while Thomas Marshall and Kapperud chipped in with 11 and 10 points, respectively. The Pioneers were paced by Gage Brumwell's 14 points. Chris Yirsa also had 11 points in the loss.
Both coaches agreed that this year's tournament may have been one of the toughest in recent memory, and the fact that their respective teams are left standing is a satisfactory feeling in itself.
"I said all year that we were going to have to go through Big Sandy, Box Elder and Blue Sky," Robinson said.
Said Lackner: "I think we have shown that the two best teams in the district played tonight. That is what this tournament is all about. We are very happy with how things worked out and we're looking forward to moving on."
KG and Big Sandy will represent District 9C at the Northern C Divisional Tournament in Cut Bank in two weeks.