Havre Daily News
GREAT FALLS - Not many expected the Big Sandy Pioneers girls basketball team to walk away with the Northern C divisional championship.
After beating two of the best teams in Class C in Chester/J-I and Highwood, however, that is exactly what the Pioneers did.
In a battle of 20-1 teams, Big Sandy took on Highwood on Saturday night at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls for the right to be called divisional champion.
The two teams jumped out of the blocks quickly as the first quarter turned into a shootout between the Pioneers' Naomi Williams and the Mountaineers' Donnetta Gondiero.
Williams positioned herself inside for four easy baskets and Gondiero answered with a 3-pointer and a few trips to the free-throw line as both players scored eight points and Highwood took an early 19-16 lead.
Early on in the second quarter, the Pioneers were dealt a vicious blow as Williams drew her third foul just 49 seconds into the quarter. Already ahead by three, the Mountaineers had a great opportunity to seize control of the game.
Highwood pushed its lead to as many as seven points at 26-19, but the Pioneers chipped away at that lead with two late baskets by Shalayna Pearson and Laci Keller to cut the lead to 28-26 by halftime.
“When Naomi went out of the game, I was worried that it was really going to hurt us,” Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner said. “But some other girls stepped up and it didn't end up doing as much damage as I thought that it would.”
In the third quarter, Williams continued to struggle. With Williams clearly out of rhythm, the Pioneers needed someone to step up, and that someone was Keller.
Keller, a freshman who didn't play in the previous two games in the tournament, scored five points in the third quarter as the Pioneers outscored Highwood 17-9 to grab a 43-37 lead with just one quarter remaining.
“Naomi never seemed to find her comfort level again after she got in foul trouble,” Lackner said. “But Laci Keller stepped up and made some key baskets for us, which was pretty amazing considering that it was the first time she played in the entire tournament.”
In the fourth quarter, the Pioneers slowly began to pull away from Highwood, despite the efforts of Gondiero, who hit two threes early to keep her team within striking distance at 47-44.
With their lead trimmed to three points, the Pioneers, led by two baskets from Kacy Herron, surged ahead with an 8-0 run that put them ahead 55-44 with just minutes remaining.
Just when it appeared the Pioneers had put the game away, the Mountaineers made one last charge for the title.
The run started with a basket by Rachel Semansky. Then Big Sandy turned it over twice in a row, leading to two easy baskets by Whitney Baum and Julia Granger to cut the lead to 55-50.
Williams connected on a layup, putting Big Sandy up by seven and seemingly stopping the run. But once again Highwood answered with two more baskets by Granger and Baum. After a missed free throw by Jessica Amsbaugh, Katie Schipf drilled a 3-pointer and all of a sudden the game was tied after a 13-2 Mountaineer run.
On the ensuing possession Pearson was fouled, setting the stage for a pair of dramatic free throws. Pearson calmly drilled both and gave her team a 57-55 lead with just seconds remaining.
“We were starting to get a little nervous,” Pearson said. “But we have been working on free throws a lot in practice and it was an awesome feeling to hit them both.”
Highwood got a good look at a 3-pointer but missed and then a scrum ensued. After three missed put-back attempts, Highwood was given the ball out of bounds with just 2.8 seconds remaining. Baum received the inbounds pass, but lost control of the ball, sealing the win for Big Sandy.
“We just try to keep it close for the fans,” Lackner joked. “We want to keep people in their seats and we didn't want to see anybody leaving early.”
Pearson led the way for the Pioneers with 17 points. Herron added 11 points and Williams contributed with 10 points.
Gondiero had 16 points and Baum pitched in with 15 points in the loss.
On Friday night Big Sandy met up with Chester/J-I in a classic confrontation.
In a back-and-forth first half, Keyla Briese of C/J-I scored 18 points, giving the Hawks a 29-28 lead at intermission.
The two teams battled to a 37-37 tie after three quarters, as they prepared for a pulse-pounding finish.
Lackner and the Pioneers stalled in the final minutes, holding for the last shot, before Pearson missed an opportunity to win the game, and it went into overtime.
The Pioneers stalled once again, this time for over 2 minutes, before Williams scored putting the Pioneers up 50-48. That basket would be all they needed as the Pioneers shut out the Hawks in overtime to earn a 54-48 win.
Williams led the way with 16 points and Herron added 13 points in the win.
Keyla Briese led the Hawks with a game-high 20 points.
With their Northern C divisional championship, the Pioneers will now move on to play Twin Bridges in the Class C state tournament in Hamilton next weekend. Chester/J-I will also move on to the state tournament.
Big Sandy 54, Chester/J-I 48 (sf)
C/J-I 12 17 8 11 0 - 48
Big Sandy 15 13 9 11 6 - 54
C/J-I - Amanda Violett 5-11 0-0 10, Mary DeVries 3-9 1-2 7, Keyla Briese 8-20 1-2 20, Jackie Allsch 0-3 0-3 0, Brittney Kolstad 2-5 0-0 4, Hannah Pimley 3-8 1-1 7. Totals - 21-56 3-8 48
Big Sandy - Naomi Williams 6-13 4-7 16, Kacy Herron 4-17 3-8 13, Sarah Yirsa 3-6 0-0 6, Shalayna Pearson 5-15 0-2 10, Ahaila Cline 1-4 0-0 3, Jessica Amsbaugh 3-6 0-0 6. Totals - 22-61 7-17 54
Total fouls - C/J-I 16, Big Sandy 16. Fouled out - none. 3-pointers - Briese 3, Herron 2, Cline.
Big Sandy 59 Highwood 57 (1st)
Big Sandy 16 10 17 16 - 59
Highwood 19 11 7 20 - 57
Big Sandy - Naomi Williams 5-5 0-0 10, Kacy Heron 4-14 1-2 11, Shalayna Pearson 6-15 4-5 17, Jessica Amsbough 2-5 0-1 5, Morgan Darlington 2-4 0-0 4, Shersteen Clinte 1-1 0-0 3, Laci Keller 4-7 1-3 9. Totals: 24-55 6-11.
Highwood - Donetta Gondiero 4-16 5-6 16, Katie Schipf 3-9 0-0 9, Julia Granger 5-9 0-0 10, Richelle O'Leary 1-7 1-2 3, Rachel Semansky 2-8 0-0 4, Whitney Baum 5-16 5-6 15. Totals: 20-65 11-14.
Fouls - Big Sandy 14, Highwood 12. Fouled out - Darlington. 3-pointers - Herron 2, Pearson, Amsbaugh, Cline. Gondiero 3, Schipf 3.