By George Ferguson
For the second straight week, the path to a tournament title for the Big Sandy Pioneers had to go through the Box Elder Lady Bears as the top two District 9C teams took center stage at the Northern C girls divisional basketball tournament in Lewistown on Saturday night.
And for the second week in a row, Pioneers got the best of the pesky Bears. Big Sandy downed Box Elder, 59-55, to capture the Northern C championship as well as remain undefeated on the season.
After grabbing a surprising 14-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Bears fell victim to a patented Big Sandy scoring run. The Pioneers outscored Box Elder, 21-10, in the second quarter to take a 34-24 lead into halftime.
In the third quarter, the Pioneers extended their lead to 13 points at 50-37. Then Box Elder made a furious fourth-quarter comeback by outscoring the Pioneers, 18-9, but came up just short.
"We had to play a lot of minutes without Sheena Darlington in this game," said Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner. "She got in foul trouble in the first quarter and we got in some more foul trouble in the fourth. Every time that happened, Box Elder would come back on us."
"That same thing happened to us against Grass Range," Lackner added. "Because we are not very deep when we do have to sit starters down, that really evens things out. But all of our players stepped up and did a good job when we needed it most."
Despite the struggles against Grass Range and Box Elder, Lackner was still elated to bring the Northern C title back to Big Sandy.
"It is a very satisfying feeling to win this championship because last year we were 23-1 and didn't go to the state tournament," Lackner said. "It is also very gratifying because this tournament has a lot of quality teams in it. We're very happy to come out on top."
In the title game, the Pioneers were paced by Darlington's game-high 21 points. Lindsay Danreuther added 13 points and Ashley Goodian chipped in with 12. The Bears got 18 points from Tami Infante and 10 from Rebecca Eagleman in the losing effort. Despite the loss, the Bears still have a chance to reach the state tournament if they can survive tonight's challenge game against third-place Belt.
Tonight's contest is one that Lackner believes the Bears can win.
"Box Elder has been playing really well lately and it is no surprise to anyone that they were in the championship game of this tournament," Lackner said. "They have already beaten Belt this season and Belt really isn't playing their best basketball right now. I think that Box Elder has a real good chance of winning that game.
"It would really say a lot about our conference if we can get both teams to the state tournament," Lackner added.
On Friday night, the Pioneers cruised to the title game by making a bold statement against the Belt Huskies. The game was a much anticipated rematch from last year's Northern C tourney, but the Pioneers made it a one-team show by hammering the Huskies, 60-37. The Pioneers jumped all over the Huskies in the first half and took a 37-20 lead into halftime. Belt could never really recover from Big Sandy's first-half surge as the Pioneers cruised in the second half.
"I think the girls were worried going into the Belt game because of what happened to us last year," Lackner said. "But we played very well and we were able to get our offense going against them. I have said all year that when we shoot the ball well we're tough to beat."
The Pioneers got 20 points from Danreuther - including four three-pointers - while Darlington added 11 and Linda Givens chipped in with 10.
Overall, Lackner was pleased with his team's effort over the three days.
"I think Linda Givens really stepped up for us this weekend," Lackner said. "Carly Squires did a lot of the little things we needed, but this was a total team effort."
Also on Friday, the Box Elder Bears reached the championship game by knocking off the Winifred Red Raiders, 41-38. The Bears bounced back from a 14-9 first-quarter deficit to take a 20-19 lead at the half. After the two teams played to a 11-11 third quarter, the Bears preserved the victory by outscoring the Red Raiders 10-8 in the final period.
Box Elder was led in the win by Infante with 15 points. Eagleman chipped in with eight points.
The Pioneers (23-0) will advance to the Class C state tournament this Thursday in Butte. The Bears (17-7) will face Belt (23-2) in tonight's challenge game at 7:30 p.m. at the Fergus High gymnasium in Lewistown. The winner of that game will join Big Sandy in Butte on Thursday.