By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
In Roy Lackner's mind, all is right with the world - or at least District 9C girls basketball.
After a one-year absence, Lackner's Pioneers were back in a familiar situation Saturday night, hoisting a District 9C tournament championship trophy above their heads.
Second-seeded Big Sandy used a dominant first half, and hung on for dear life in the second half, to score a 44-43 win over the top-seeded Rocky Boy Morning Stars Saturday night at a packed Havre High gymnasium.
With two starters - Naomi Williams and Kacy Herron - on the bench fouled out, the Pioneers held off a valiant Rocky Boy charge in the game's final minutes as senior Sandy Zeiger hit two free throws and freshman Morgan Darlington added another to provide Big Sandy some cushion.
Rocky Boy still had its chances after Darlington's 1-2 effort from the free-throw line with 54.6 seconds remaining. Down 44-41, junior Shaneen Rainingbird drew a foul inside and made one of two free throws to cut the lead to 44-41.
The Stars then forced a jump ball to retain possession with 18.6 seconds left. Instead of settling for a long 3-point shot, Loni Belcourt drove for a quick a score and her shot rattled around agonizingly on the rim before rolling off. Rocky Boy rebounded the miss and missed two more point-blank shots before Tori Belcourt was fouled on a putback with 5.4 seconds remaining.
Belcourt missed the subsequent free throws, but Rocky Boy rebounded the ball and Frances Eagleman tossed up a desperation baseline jumper that was inside the 3-point line as time expired. It fell in.
The win set off a wild celebration on the Big Sandy sideline that included Lackner himself, who was jumping around. It seemed a bit surprising, considering that the number of his girls 9C titles is higher than most of his players' ages.
"I am so happy," an elated Lackner said after the game. "This championship meant a lot to me and these girls. For me, this team doesn't have the talent that others have had, but they've really worked for it."
For the Big Sandy girls, most of whom were on last year's team that finished a disappointing fourth, it was sweet vindication.
"It means so much," said Williams. "Last year we struggled, and this year a lot of people thought it would be the same thing. To come out and win the championship and show people, it's just amazing."
Said Zeiger: "I came to Big Sandy to be a part of something like this. My old school (Hinsdale) didn't even make it out of the loser-out games."
And Lackner's championship celebration?
"I haven't seen him that excited very often," Williams said. "He got excited when we beat Chester, but he was really excited to win this game."
Williams was one of the major reasons for the title. She scored nine of Big Sandy's 10 first-quarter points as the Pioneers jumped out to 10-3 lead.
"I knew I would get some opportunities," Williams said. "I just tried to make sure not to fadeaway and go straight up."
With Williams banging away inside offensively, the Pioneers were beating the Stars at their own game with a nasty full-court press, forcing Rocky Boy into some uncharacteristic turnovers and forced shots.
"The last second before the game started, I decided to press them," Lackner said. "I thought they looked nervous in warm ups and I saw them throw a couple bad of passes, so I decided to press them."
Lackner's suspicion was right. After Tori Belcourt sank a 3-pointer at the 7:01 mark of the first quarter to open the game, the Stars went scoreless for almost the entire first quarter. It was a combination of turnovers, missed shots and just not typical Stars' offensive execution.
"We really didn't start playing until the second quarter," said Rocky Boy head coach Deb LaMere. "We had some people not ready to play right away."
Rocky Boy finally got off three points with 5.8 seconds remaining in the first quarter as Loni Belcourt hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 10-6.
While the Stars struggled initially against the Big Sandy full-court pressure, the Pioneers broke Rocky Boy's press with relative ease, throwing long passes over the top for easy scores and leading to a 12-0 run to start the second quarter. Kacy Herron came to life, scoring eight of the 12 points as Big Sandy roared ahead 22-6.
"I skipped school to watch Rocky Boy play Hays-Lodge Pole in the semifinals and I'm glad I did," Lackner said. "Rocky Boy is so quick they force you into turnovers and get quick layups. I decided if we were going to turn it over, I'd rather do it in the frontcourt, so we threw it long so if they stole it they couldn't get an easy layup, they had to set up their offense."
Rocky Boy went scoreless for the first five and half minutes of the second quarter until Tori Belcourt scored on a driving basket. But the damage had been done for the most part, as Big Sandy led 26-10 at halftime.
"We wanted to guard them light on the blocks and really get out and cover their guards and contest the outside shot," Lackner said. "We couldn't have played better defensively."
Big Sandy seemed poised to put the game away early in the second half, as Sarah Yirsa opened the half with layup. However, Rocky Boy was due to make a run and started one as Rainingbird scored the Stars' first back-to-back baskets of the game with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Foul trouble then caught up with the Pioneers, as Herron was forced to sit down with her fourth foul in the midst of the Stars' run. Rainingbird added another bucket and Loni Belcourt scored the last five points of the quarter to cut the lead to 32-24. To make matters worse for the Pioneers, Williams picked up her fourth foul with 16 seconds remaining in the quarter, sending her to the bench with Herron.
With the momentum in the Stars' favor, they continued the run, getting six straight points from Eagleman to cut the lead to 32-30. Lackner had no choice but to bring Herron and Williams back into the game.
"I'm not going to sit and wait for them to take a four-point lead to bring our two best players back into the game," he said.
Herron tried to break the run, hitting one of two free throws, but missed two more on the next possession. Rocky Boy took advantage, as Eagleman scored on a pretty spin move to cut the lead to one at 33-32.
Rocky Boy had a chance to take the lead as Loni Belcourt was fouled by Williams on a rebound. But she uncharacteristically missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Big Sandy got a little cushion. Herron scored on a pull-up jumper, Yirsa scored on lay-up and Herron added two free throws to push the lead back to 39-32. She added another two a moment later to quell a late Rocky Boy push before fouling out.
Williams led all scorers with 17 points, while Herron finished with 15.
"Williams played well," LaMere said. "She came ready to play and really hurt us with her offensive rebounding."
Eagleman, just a freshman, came off the bench to score 12 points and lead the Stars. Rainingbird added 11, while Loni Belcourt chipped in with 10.
"I was proud of our girls for fighting back," LaMere said. "They could have given up, but they showed a lot of heart in coming back. We had a lot of opportunities to win, we just couldn't finish them."
Still, it was Lackner and his team's night, as they beat Rocky Boy for the second time this season.
"Rocky Boy has a great team and give them credit because they played hard," Lackner said. "But it feels good to know that the road to the 9C championship still runs through Big Sandy."
Both teams will advance to this week's Northern C Divisional tournament in Great Falls. Big Sandy will face District 10C champion Sunburst on Wednesday, while Rocky Boy will face 10C runner-up Chester on Wednesday evening.
Big Sandy 44, Rocky Boy 43
Big Sandy 10 16 6 12 - 44
Rocky Boy 6 4 14 19 - 43
Big Sandy - Naomi Williams 17, Sarah Yirsa 6, Kacy Herron 15, Shalayna Pearson 5, Morgan Darlington 1. Totals 16 10-22.
Rocky Boy - Chelsea St. Pierre 1, Tori Belcourt 5, Loni Belcourt 10, Frances Eagleman 12, Shaneen Rainingbird 11, Erin Broncho 2. Totals 17 7-15.
Total fouls - Big Sandy 17, Rocky Boy 17. Fouled out - Herron. 3-point goals - T. Belcourt, L. Belcourt.