Havre Daily News sports editor
It wasn't the start to the District 9C tournament that Box Elder boys basketball head coach Gus Bacon was looking for from his Bears. Nevertheless, second-seeded Box Elder survived a major scare from seventh-seeded Rocky Boy in the first round of the District 9C tournament on Tuesday afternoon.
The Bears got off to a slow start offensively and had to hold off a late Rocky Boy rally to earn a 10-point, 53-43, victory and advance to Thursday night's semifinal.
“We didn't play all that well in the first half,” Bacon said. “The shots weren't falling for us. And you have to give Rocky Boy a lot of credit for that. They play hard, especially defensively.”
Indeed, the Stars held the high-scoring Bears to one of their lowest outputs of the season, and they contained the league's leading scorer, Aaron Henry, who was held to just 10 points.
“The thing I am most proud of is that we played so well defensively,” Rocky Boy head coach Andy Smith said. “We played good enough defensively to win the game.”
Defense became the focal point in a rivalry that usually lights up scoreboards. With the game tied at 10-10 after the first quarter, both teams settled in defensively and neither got much going on the offensive end.
However, late in the second quarter, the Bears ripped off nine unanswered points, including three straight baskets off Rocky Boy turnovers. The 9-0 run got Box Elder some separation heading into the locker room, as the Bears led 25-18.
“Our defense is what got us going today,” Bacon said. “We have stressed in practice the last couple of weeks how important it is to play good defense in this tournament.
“Once we started to play good defense,” he added, “it led to a little more success for our offense.”
The low-scoring affair finally picked up midway through the third period. Box Elder ran off another eight unanswered points to pull ahead, 33-21. The third-quarter spurt overshadowed a tremendous shooting display by Rocky Boy's Ivan Whitford, who hit three 3-pointers in the quarter. Whitford's last trey brought the Stars back to within nine points at 37-28 heading into the final stanza.
The fourth quarter turned out to be a barnburner. Box Elder's offense stalled a bit and Rocky Boy kept chipping away at the Bears' lead. With 1:40 left in the game, the Stars were within four points, 47-43.
That would be the last time Rocky Boy scored, as the Stars committed several of their 22 turnovers in the final minute, allowing Box Elder to ice the game at the free-throw line.
“We played so well defensively,” Smith said. “But we had 22 turnovers and that is 22 times we didn't have an opportunity to score. It is tough to win when you do that and those mistakes really hurt us.”
Henry led the Bears with 10 points, 13 below his season average. Steve Arca and Lane LaMere each scored eight points.
The Stars got a game-high 15 points from center Lakota Oats. Oats also pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. Whitford scored 14 points, including four threes. Bryant Eagleman added nine points in the losing effort.
“I am really proud of our effort today,” Smith said. “But we hurt ourselves with turnovers and that was really the story of the game for us.”
Said Bacon: “Rocky Boy played with a lot of heart and they never quit. They gave us a real tough game. But I am proud of our kids for hanging in there and playing tremendous defense. Our defense really won the game for us today.”
The Bears will now play Hays-Lodge Pole in Thursday night's semifinal. The Stars will move into the loser-out bracket, where they will square off against Chinook tonight at 7.
Bears 53, Stars 43
Rocky Boy 10 8 10 15 - 43
Box Elder 10 15 12 16 - 53
Rocky Boy - Ivan Whitford 14, Guy Johnson 5, Bryant Eagleman 9, Lakota Oats 15. Totals: 13 9-15 43.
Box Elder - Steve Arca 8, Aaron Henry 10, Dustin Bacon 5, Lane LaMere 8, Mike Sangrey Jr. 6, Jayson Hawk 6, Austin Whitford 6, Joel Parker 4. Totals: 22 7-11 53.
3-pointers - Rocky Boy 6 (Whitford 4, Oats 1, Eagleman 1), Box Elder 0; Total fouls - Rocky Boy 11, Box Elder 16; Fouled out - None.