By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
When you're ranked No. 1 in the state, you get every team's best performance. It's part of the responsibility that comes with being on top.
The Big Sandy boys basketball team is no stranger to this, having spent the entire season atop the Class C power poll.
Despite facing every team's best effort, the Pioneers remain undefeated after weathering their latest storm - the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds.
Big Sandy overcame a few sluggish moments to pick up its 19th of the season with a 70-53 win over the T-Birds in semifinal action of the District 9C boys basketball tournament on Thursday.
After having a first-round bye to open the tournament, the Pioneers had little room for mistakes against a very good T-Bird squad that lost to Big Sandy by just five points a few weeks ago.
"That's a very tough team to start out against," said Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner. "Hays beat every team in the conference except for us and KG, and they didn't play KG. They gave us a very tough game in Hays."
Big Sandy rolled to a 16-11 first-quarter lead on seven points from Jay Jamieson and six from Gage Brumwell.
The Pioneers pushed the lead to as much as 12 late in the second quarter on a pair of free throws, but could never quite pull away as the T-Birds hit enough shots to stay in the game. A Delaine Ariwite steal and layup at the halftime buzzer cut the lead to 32-22.
The T-Birds carried that momentum over to open the second half, capitalizing on four early Pioneer turnovers to cut the lead down to three on another Ariwite steal.
Big Sandy answered immediately with a Brumwell score inside on a nice pass from Mason Ophus and an Adam Jesperson three-pointer.
Hays kept the deficit to under double figures thanks to Andrew Walker, who scored eight points in the quarter. The T-Birds found themselves in the situation many teams have had against Big Sandy - within striking distance going into the fourth quarter.
Lackner questioned his team in the huddle in between quarters asking them if they had looked at the scoreboard.
"It's not just going to happen," he told his team.
But his team made it happen in the fourth quarter. Ophus, who was playing on a severely sprained ankle, scored Big Sandy's first nine points to push the lead to 50-40.
The T-Birds desperately tried to fight back as a Steven Shambo three-pointer trimmed the lead to seven, but that was close as Hays would get.
Big Sandy went into a four-corners offense to run some clock, forcing the T-Birds to extend their defense. It led to a couple easy scores and several free throws to go up 66-51, putting the game away.
Lackner wasn't sure that this same group of kids could have done the same thing last season.
"The difference between this year and last year is that we don't have that maturity to put teams away," Lackner said.
"Hays shoots the three so well that it keeps them in games," Lackner said. "We were getting two for their threes and it kept things close. But I'll take getting two every time rather than getting three a few times."
Many of those two's came from Brumwell, who scored 20 points on a myriad of short jump shots and drives to the basket. After facing zone defenses much of the season, the Pioneers have little trouble finding good shots against the zone.
"We just need to be patient and work the ball around and we'll get good shots," Brumwell said.
Those good shots came in the middle of the zone as Brumwell got the ball and either scored on a jumpshot or muscled his way inside for a layup.
"I knew after watching them play that they were going to give us the middle," Lackner said. "We'll gladly take. If we can get Gage in one-on-one situations, he'll get the ball in the basket."
Besides Brumwell, Jamieson finished with 18 points and Ophus added 13 in the win.
Hays got 18 points from Walker and 13 from Doney in the loss.
"That's what makes Hays so dangerous," Lackner said. "They can have a different person score 10 points in each quarter. They're very deep."
The win was another in a series of close games for the Pioneers which Lackner expects to continue.
"Teams have been playing us very close early on," Lackner said. "But they don't have enough to overcome if we have a lead. If we can play with maturity, teams are going to play us close, but they're not going to beat us."
Big Sandy will face Box Elder in Saturday night's championship game at 7 p.m. The T-Birds will take on Rocky Boy in loser-out action today at 1 p.m.
Big Sandy 70, Hays-Lodge Pole 53
Big Sandy 16 16 12 26 - 70
Hays-Lodge Pole 11 11 15 16 - 53
Big Sandy - Gage Brumwell 20, Jay Jamieson 18, Mason Ophus 13, Skylar Pearson 6, Adam Butler 4, Devin Genereux 1, Adam Jespersen 5, Justin Willis 3.
Hays-Lodge Pole - Delaine Ariwite 9, Andrew Walker 18, Robyn Doney 13, Michael Gray 2, Steven Shambo 6, Dwight Flansburg 3.
Three-point goals - Jamieson 1, Jesperson 1, Willis 1, Ariwite 1, Doney 1, Shambo 2, Flansburg 1. Total Fouls - Hays-Lodge Pole 26,