With just 1:41 left to play in the fourth quarter, a berth in the District 9C boys championship game was still up in the air between the Big Sandy Pioneers and the North Star Knights.
In the final minute however, the Pioneers were the ones who grabbed it.
Top-seeded Big Sandy overcame a valiant effort by the Knights, going on a 10-0 run to close out a 55-41 win in a 9C boys semifinal game Thursday afternoon at the Havre High gymnasium.
The win, which was much closer then the final score will indicate, pushed the Pioneers through to Saturday night’s championship game, and most likely into next week’s Northern C Divisional in Great Falls.
“That game was up in the air the whole way,” Big Sandy head coach Roy Lackner said. “North Star played great. They are a very tough team and Jordy and Karston Donoven are great players. The bottom line is, you have to make your free throws in these games and for a while, we weren’t doing that. And when you don’t make free throws and you have scorers on the other end like North Star has, it’s going to be close.
“They (Knights) played us as tough as anybody did during the regular season, so I’m not at all surprised that this was a tough game for us,” he continued. “But once we settled down and made some free throws, that put us in a much better position to win.”
The Knights made a great run, and with the exception of the final minute, never went away.
North Star trailed 34-27 going into the fourth quarter, and by as many as eight points with 3:30 left in the contest. But a 3-point-play from Donovan Ulman, and a layup off a steal by Cooper Spicher had the Knights within striking distance down the stretch.
North Star put even more pressure on the favored Pioneers when Jordy Donoven, who was held in check by the Big Sandy defense in the second half, made a steal and a layup to cut the Big Sandy lead to 43-40 with 1:57 left in the contest.
From there however, the Knights would get only one Karston Donoven free throw the rest of the way. The Pioneer defense turned the Knights over on three straight trips, and Big Sandy converted every one of the miscues into points. Justin Stevens scored six points in the final :47, including a 3-point-play of his own to extend the lead to six as Big Sandy outscored North Star 10-0 in the final 1:12.
“I thought our defense on Jordy Donoven was the key,” Lackner said. “We decided to run a diamond-in-one on him the second half and not let him have good looks at the three. That turned out to be big for us because he is such a terrific shooter. And he can really hurt you.
“Overall, I thought our defense in the second half was very good,” he added. “And that let us hang in the game when we weren’t shooting it from the outside as well as we normally do.”
The Pioneers did get off to a good start. They led 7-2 early on and 14-11 at the end of the first quarter.
But the Knights stayed in the fight the whole way. Jordy Donoven lit up the nets in the second quarter hitting three triples in the final five minutes of the half. Only a Stevens’ 3-pointer gave Big Sandy a slim 23-20 halftime lead.
North Star continued to fight hard in the third quarter as Shelby Sizemore scored five of the Knights’ seven points in the period. But Big Sandy countered with Stevens and Kaden Beck on the inside, both of whom led the Pioneers with 15 points each.
“Our post players had a good game,” Lackner said. “That was important because we just didn’t shoot it from the outside as well as we’re capable of.
“It was a tough game,” Beck added. “It was a high intensity game. But I thought the big thing was, we were able to finally make some free throws at the end and that was huge for us.”
Stevens added 10 rebounds for a big double-double for the Pioneers. Zac Leader chipped in with nine points and leading scorer Trevor Lackner scored eight. The Knights got 16 points from Jordy Donoven, but only five of those came in the final 16 minutes. He also grabbed a team-high eight boards. Karston Donoven had a strong game as well, scoring nine points, while Ulmen added seven points and six rebounds.
The loss dropped the Knights (8-12) into Friday night’s loser-out game where they’ll face Turner at 6 p.m. North Star still has plenty to play for as a 9C challenge game is still a possibility.
Meanwhile, the Pioneers (15-4) are back in the 9C title game after missing out on a trip to the Northern C a year ago. Big sandy will Chinook in Saturday night’s championship game at 7:30 p.m.
“Whoever we face, we’ll have to shoot the ball better,” Coach Lackner said. “But the bottom line is, now we have to get beat twice in order to not go to divisionals. Today’s game was a tough one, but we put ourselves in the position we want to be in and that’s all that matters.
“It was a tough game,” Beck added. “But I think it will make us better. You want to get better every day during the season, and I think this game will help us. This tournament is there for the taking and I think we have a good chance.”
Big Sandy 55, North Star 41
Big Sandy 14 9 11 21 — 55
North Star 11 9 7 14 — 41
Big Sandy — Justin Stevens 15, Trevor Lackner 8, Kaden Beck 15, Zac Leader 9, Jessey Bailey 8. Totals: 22 7-15.
North Star — Cooper Spicher 4, Jordy Donoven 16, Karston Donoven 9, Shelby Sizemore 5, Donovan Ulmen 7. Totals: 17 3-6.
Total fouls — BS 11, NS 20. Fouled out — Ulmen. 3-pointers — Lackner, Leader, Bailey 2, Donoven 4.