Havre Daily News
After pulling off upsets against two higher-seeded teams, the Hays-Lodge Pole Thunderbirds complete their Cinderella run with a win over top-seeded North Star in the District 9C boys basketball tournament championship game on Saturday night in Havre.
The win over North Star completed a magical run that saw the T-Birds win three straight games over the top three seeds in the tournament after winning just four games in the entire conference season.
“It feels great that we were able to win the district championship,” HLP head coach Charlie Ereaux said. “I am just so proud of these kids. They never gave up even when we were losing. A lot of teams quit when they lose like we did, but these kids just kept working and they never gave up. I always believed in them and they never stop believing in me.”
HLP now moves on to the Northern C divisional tournament next weekend in Great Falls, where it hopes the run can continue.
Due to the loss, North Star will be forced to take on Box Elder tonight at 6 in a challenge game, with the winner advancing to the divisional tournament.
“It was a very exciting game, especially for the fans,” North Star head coach Charlie Robinson said. “It was pretty much as we expected. We controlled the tempo and got a lot of good shots, but we just didn't make a lot of shots we normally make and that was the difference.
“We feel pretty good even though we lost,” Robinson said. “The kids are definitely disappointed, but they will be ready against Box Elder.”
Coming into the game Saturday night, HLP was once again the underdog, but early on proved it wasn't intimidated. Trailing 8-5 in the second quarter HLP went on a 9-0 run that put the T-Birds in control. They had an 18-13 halftime lead.
Inspired by the play of freshman sensation, A.J. Long Soldier, who scored 13 of his 21 points in the second and third quarters, the T-Birds went on to take a 25-15 lead in the third quarter, the biggest lead in the game by either team.
Still, through three quarters of exhilarating play, the outcome was still in doubt, with HLP taking a 34-31 lead into the final quarter.
Cody McCabe hit a basket to kick off the scoring in the fourth and give the T-Birds a 36-31 advantage. Cody Donoven answered for North Star as he drove into the lane for a layup, and the lead was cut to three points.
Then, as he had done all night, Long Soldier rose to the occasion and put his team on his back. He scored on two straight trips down the floor, giving the T-Birds a 40-33 lead.
Down seven points the Knights turned to their two-standout players to even things back up.
First, Donoven sliced through the T-Birds' defense again for an easy basket. Branden Melby followed with a wide-open 3-pointer, pulling the Knights within two points. Donoven got inside for another lay-in, capping a 7-0 North Star run and tying the game at 40-40.
Donoven, who had scored just six points in the first three quarters, was taking over the game and it appeared he would carry the Knights all the way to a come-from-behind victory.
After Vincent Gone put HLP back up 42-40, Donoven drilled a 3-pointer to give North Star their first lead of the fourth quarter, 43-42.
Sensing that the game was slipping away, the T-Birds turned to a trusted veteran. Senior Lance Brockie scored on two consecutive trips down the floor and with 3:01 left the T-Birds led 46-43.
With their lead cut to one point, 46-45, HLP possessed the basketball with just over a minute left and had a chance to eat up some clock. However, Long Soldier made a freshman mistake as he threw the ball away, giving the Knights a golden opportunity with 1:06 to play.
Melby sliced through the defense and banked home what appeared to be the go-ahead basket. However, Brockie rescued his team once again by taking a charge and negating the basket. Then, after nearly throwing away the ensuing inbounds pass, Gone found Long Soldier for a layup and a foul. After converting the free throw, the T-Birds led 49-45, seemingly putting the final nail in the coffin.
However, on a dunk attempt in the final seconds Long Soldier was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Donoven hit two free throws and, with two-tenths of a second left, North Star had one final chance.
Donoven's desperation heave fell short and the T-Birds' Cinderella story was complete.
“I was nervous at the start of the game, and I didn't think I would contribute as much as I did,” Long Soldier said. “It feels great that we were able to win and I hope that we can just keep working together and keep winning.”
Said Ereaux: “We always talk to our players about trying to find the mismatch, and A.J. had a mismatch so we wanted to take advantage of it. He was a little nervous at the beginning but he got over the nervousness and stepped up big time for us.”
Long Soldier led the way for the T-Birds with a game-high 21 points. Brockie contributed with 10 points in the win.
Donoven scored 17 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter as he tried to bring his team back. Melby added 14 points for the Knights in the loss.
“We are going to ride this as far as we can,” Ereaux said. “A lot of people are still doubting us, or think that we just got lucky, but we beat the top three seeds. You don't do that by being lucky.”
Thunderbirds 49, Knights 47
North Star 6 7 18 16 -47
Hays-Lodge Pole 5 13 16 15 -49
North Star - Darius Wendland 10, Branden Melby 14, Shane Rice 4, Cody Donoven 17, Alex Frey 2. Totals 19 6-7.
Hays-Lodge Pole - Cole McCabe 7, Cody McCabe 4, Vincent Gone 7, A.J. Long Soldier 18, Lance Brockie 10. Totals 18 4-9.
Total fouls - North Star 11, Hays-Lodge Pole 12. Fouled out - none. 3-pointers - Melby 2, Donoven, McCabe, Gone.