It may have been a struggle for a time, but the Box Elder Bears are the second-ranked Class C team in the state for a reason.
And Thursday afternoon, in the District 9C girls semifinals, the Bears showed why.
North Star gave the unbeaten Bears a strong first-half battle, but when it was time to pull away, the Bears did just that. Box Elder went on a 19-4 run in the third quarter and easily advanced to the 9C championship game with a 64-44 win over the Knights Thursday afternoon at the Havre High gymnasium.
North Star, which played a tremendous game in the opening round Wednesday against Hays-Lodge Pole, came out firing on all cylinders again Thursday, and the Knights caught the Bears a little off guard.
Box Elder led just 14-9 after the first quarter and needed six straight points by senior Aricka Wolf Chief to do so. Things got even closer in the second quarter as baskets by Lisa Carlon, Shelby Lipp and inspired play from Kassidy Hansen wound up tying the game at 23-23 in a first half that saw the top-seeded Bears take a slim, 28-26 lead into intermission.
“I thought we did a great job of breaking their press in the first half,” North Star head coach Brian Campbell said. “We were well prepared for it and we played very well offensively because we were able to break it.
“The third quarter was different,” he continued. “They (Bears) made a great adjustment, they pulled back, went into a zone and we didn’t shoot the ball as good to answer it. They (Bears) are the No. 2 team in the state for a reason. They played a great second half, they have a lot of weapons, and once we couldn’t answer with baskets on our end, that was pretty much the difference. But I’m really pleased with the way our girls played.”
The Bears did indeed have all the answers in a dominating third quarter.
Box Elder got six straight points from Brandi Buffalo, then a 3-pointer by Jaylin Parker, then six unanswered from Wolf Chief, all in a six-minute stretch. During the run, the Bears’ lead went from two points to 15 as they led 47-32 at the end of the third quarter.
“I was really happy with the way we played in the third quarter,” Box Elder head coach Joel Rossette said. “North Star came out and did a great job of breaking our press and I thought we played a little tentative in the first half. But North Star was really good in that first half. They were well prepared for us and they played us tough.
“But we made an adjustment to our defense at halftime and that helped us settle into the game a little bit,” he added. “And once we started making some layups and creating some turnovers, the game kind of went more towards the pace we like to play at. So I’m proud of our girls for hanging in there when things weren’t really going as well in the first half.”
Up by 15 points with eight minutes to play, the Bears put the finishing touches on the game by scoring 17 more points to win by 20. Box Elder’s average margin of victory during their now 19 straight wins has been 19 points per game. But all of that doesn’t matter to Rossette and the Bears. They are just excited to have another chance at a 9C title, something that slipped away in last year’s tourney.
“We’ve really tried to not focus on the winning streak or any of that stuff,” Rossette said. “The kids have done a good job of taking things one game at a time and that’s what we want to continue to do. I think the first half today was a combination of maybe some first-game jitters and also a credit to how well North Star is playing.
“But we stayed focused and were able to play much better,” he added. “And that’s what we’re going to do now. Juts stay focused and get ready for Saturday night.”
Wolf Chief, the 9C’s leading scorer led the way with 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. She’s normally a deadly 3-point shooter, but most of her points Thursday came on layups and tough drives to the basket. Senior Crystal Stamper added 11 points and Breanna Matt had a strong 10 in the post. Buffalo chipped in with eight points and 10 rebounds.
The Knights (8-12) got 18 points from Lisa Carlon, one night after she scored a career-high 28 in a win over HLP. Shelby Lipp added nine points and 12 rebounds and Tylynn Rettig chipped in with a solid seven. The loss was tough for North Star, which did commit 21 turnovers, but which also played much better than the final score showed.
However, Campbell, a veteran of the 9C tournament won’t allow his team to look back, only forward towards bouncing back and hopefully placing third. Next up for North Star is the consolation game Saturday afternoon against either HLP or Big Sandy.
“This just shows how big it was for us to win yesterday (Wednesday),” Campbell said. “And how big it was for us to play so well yesterday. Because I think that carried over into today’s game, and I do feel like we played pretty well. But that win was big because now we get to rest while the other we could play in the consolation game have to play tonight and tomorrow. Our legs were a little tired today so that day of rest and preparation will be good for us.
“We still have everything we want in front of us,” he added. “The goal is always to get to the divisional tournament and we still have a chance to achieve that at this point.”
The Bears (19-0) are also nearing achieving that same goal. In order to miss out on the Northern C tourney, they would have to be upset twice in the coming days. But for now, Box Elder will focus in on claiming the 9C crown when they battle Chinook in a rematch of last year’s championship game. The 9C title game is set to tip off at 6 p.m. Saturday night in Havre.
Box Elder 64, North Star 44
Box Elder 14 14 19 17 — 64
North Star 9 16 6 12 — 44
Box Elder — Brandi Buffalo 8, Crystal Stamper 11, Aricka Wolf Chief 21, Tristian Parisian 2, Krista Chief Stick 2, Jaylin Parker 3, Caitlyn Gamble 5, Breanna Matt 10, Kylee Raining Bird 2. Totals: 26 11-24.
North Star — Machenzie Hansen 4, Lisa Carlon 18, Tylynn Rettig 7, Shelby Lipp 9, Kassidy Warren 6. Totals: 17 7-16.
Total fouls — BE 20, NS 20. Fouled out — K. Hansen. 3-pointers — Parker, M. Hansen, Rettig, Lipp.