By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
KG girls basketball coach Jen Wendland liked the idea of playing a first-round game in the District 9C tournament.
It would have offered the perfect opportunity to get the opening butterflies out of the way and get used to the tournament atmosphere.
Instead, Wendland and the KouGars found themselves locked in a first-round fight for their tournament lives on Tuesday afternoon.
Despite a sluggish performance, KG survived with a 58-50 win over the upset-minded Bears to move into Thursday's semifinal against the winner of either Big Sandy or Hays-Lodge Pole. That game had to be postponed until today because of blizzard-like conditions in Hays.
KG could have very easily been playing in today's loser-out action, if not for a second-half rally led by senior Cady Arifin, who scored 24 of her game-high 39 points in the second game.
Box Elder came out aggressively to start the game, throwing a physical box-and-one defense at Arifin - the conference's leading scorer - to force KG's remaining players to beat them.
The strategy worked early as Arifin was bumped, banged and had to scrap just to get the ball."
"I really think it bothered Cady a little early," Wendland said. "They were playing very physical against her. I don't think our players expected Box Elder to come out so aggressive right away. It took us a little while to get going."
Neither team exactly scorched the nets offensively, as KG missed some early layups and Box Elder committed some costly turnovers. Still, the Bears were able to take an early lead on the inside play of sophomore Shaneen Raining Bird, who scored 10 of her team's first 16 points.
KG hung around thanks to a pair of three-pointers from Arifin and moving to full-court pressure to fluster the turnover-prone Bears.
Three consecutive Box Elder turnovers gave KG a brief 22-21 lead but a three-pointer from Sharlene Yellowtail gave Box Elder a 24-22 halftime lead.
Wendland reminded her girls early and often in the first half that this type of play wouldn't go far in helping them in the tournament.
"Their goal all season has been to make divisionals," Wendland said. "And told them, 'If you want to go to divisionals, you better start playing right now.'"
KG's success with full-court pressure carried over to the third quarter as five consecutive Box Elder turnovers to start the second half allowed KG to go on a 10-2 run to take a 32-26 lead.
"We needed to pressure them," Wendland said. "We know they aren't good against full-court pressure. I thought Casie Toner, Cady Arifin and Mandy Rambo all really stepped up the defensive intensity.
"It helped us get the lead back, but it seemed like every time we took a lead we'd let down and let them back in the game."
Indeed, KG took a 42-37 lead into the fourth quarter only to see it disappear immediately as baskets from Tasha Parisian, Raining Bird and Rebecca Eagleman gave Box Elder a 43-42 lead.
The KouGars' defense responded, forcing three turnovers leading to six consecutive points and a 48-43 lead. KG continued to work defensively, limiting the Bears to just four points in the last five minutes of the game.
Box Elder simply couldn't get shots, and the shots the Bears did get were far from what head coach Shiloh Schwab-Hannum was looking for.
"When we went up on them, they really pressured us with a hard-nosed, really tough defense," she said. "They got some key steals and easy baskets. We're just not experienced enough or have a star player like Cady to put teams away."
Arifin put Box Elder away, scoring eight points in the final two minutes, including 6-6 from the free-throw line.
"For the most part we accomplished what we wanted to do," Schwab-Hannum said. "We just couldn't finish at the end. You can't commit 30 turnovers against a team like KG. Give them credit, they also made their free throws down the stretch."
Said Wendland: "We struggled with free throws earlier in the year, but we've worked on them quite a bit. We made them when we needed to."
Besides Arifin, KG got 10 points from Toner. Raining Bird led Box Elder with 16 points while Rebecca Eagleman added 14.
Basically, KG made plays when it needed and did what it had to do to avoid the first-round upset. But it was far from a pleasing win for Wendland.
"This is definitely a wake-up call for us," she said. "I think we overlooked them a little. We did not come out even close to ready to play and they did. I kept telling them that anything can happen in this tournament, and they finally realized it today. They played bad and they know it. Hopefully, we won't do that again in the tournament."
Kremlin-Gilford 58, Box Elder 50
KG 10 12 20 16 - 58
Box Elder 10 14 13 13 - 50
KG (12-7) - Cady Arifin 39, Mandy Rambo 1, Casie Toner 10, Whitney Hanson 4, Shea Donovan 2, Kate Vosen 2. Totals: 22 12-21 58
Box Elder (1-18) - Rebecca Eagleman 14, Gerri Eagleman 3, Ashley Parisian 3, Tasha Parisian 6, Shaneen Raining Bird 16, Sharlene Yellowtail 8. Totals: 20 7-13 50.
Three-point goals - Arifin 2, R. Eagleman 1, A. Parisian 1, Yellowtail 1. Total Fouls - KG 17, Box Elder 18. Fouled out - G. Eagleman.