Once in the postseason, fans, players, and coaches all know anything can happen. Records are thrown out the window and teams have to execute at a high level no matter the opponent.
That was apparent on Wednesday night in boys District 9C action when the No. 6 North Star Knights gave the No. 3 Hays-Lodge Thunderbirds a run for their money. The Thunderbirds (9-10) ended up coming away with the 52-47 win over the Knights (3-16). The win puts the Thunderbirds up against the No. 3 Big Sandy Pioneers (12-6) tonight at 7:30 p.m., while the North Star loss puts the Knights in Friday afternoon’s loser-out game.
“Our guys are emotionally drained,” HLP head coach Charlie Ereaux said. “They just had to bury one of their best friends (Cyrus Cole) today, and their heads just weren’t in it. Some of my starters didn’t play much today, they just weren’t mentally in the game, so I had to rely on my bench players. But they pulled through, it wasn’t pretty, but they pulled it off.”
Cyrus Cole was a senior at Hays, and a former player for the Thunderbirds program. His recent passing was tough on the Thunderbirds, but they were able to play through and gain a very important win.
The Thunderbirds earned the five-point win by the skin of their teeth. For much of the game down the stretch, the game was very tight, if the Knights could have converted a few more free throws, or knocked down a couple more shots, this game could have ended differently.
After North Star’s Cooper Spicher knocked down a 3-pointer with two minutes to play, the Thunderbirds led by just two points. The Thunderbirds knocked down a couple of bonus free throws on the ensuing possession, but Spicher’s 1-for-2 from the line with 1:39 left to play kept the Knights in contention, 50-47. In the final stretch the Thunderbirds had three turnovers and missed their only field goal attempt. But they overcame the Knights’ press and Sterling Whitecow hit two clutch free throws with 31 seconds left to play to grab the 52-47 lead. Hays-LP did miss four more free throw attempts that would have given the team a more comfortable cushion, but the defense was able to force North Star to miss seven consecutive shots in the final 1:30.
“I had to rely on one of our sophomores (Marvin Cole) to hit free throws.” Ereaux said. “He has played sparingly, but he came in and played some big minutes and knocked down some big free throws.”
And despite the loss, the Knights did give it their all.
“We missed 15 free throws and we were under 50 percent,” North Star head coach Cody Donoven said. “That is 15 points that we left on the board. But I don’t have anything bad to say, we played as hard as we possibly could, and if we make a few more free throws or shots, we win that game.”
HLP jumped out to a 14-8 lead, but the Knights closed the gap to 23-22 at the half. The Thunderbirds outscored the Knights 20-12 to gain another decent lead, but the Knights’ high-pressure defense helped outscore the Thunderbirds 13-9 in the final frame.
“We were up on them at first,” T-Bird Jeff Sorrell said. “But they came back. We looked like we gave them an opening and they felt that we gave them an opening. We had to shut them down at the end and it is good to get the win and get into the semis. It was a big win for us.”
The Thunderbirds shot 20-for-60 from the field and were led by Sorrell’s 15 points. Gage Essert and Whitecow finished with 12 points each. Essert knocked down three treys, while the offense also overcame 27 turnovers and 44 percent free-throw shooting.
North Star was led by Gavin Spinler’s 19 points, while Spicher added 18 points. Spinler knocked down three treys, while Spicher was able to hit four from behind the arc. North Star also struggled from the charity stripe, converting just 14 of their 29 attempts.
Moving on to the semifinals, the Thunderbirds now have to brace for the Pioneers. Big Sandy is a favorite to reach the 9C title game again this season, and the Thunderbirds know they have to play very well today.
“It is a tough time for us,” Ereaux said. “If my guys come emotionally ready we will have a chance, but if we aren’t ready, Big Sandy is too good. They have almost their whole team back, and we have to bring our A game and be ready to play. We have to take care of the ball. We haven’t been boxing out very well and we have to do a lot better rebounding. We are one of the biggest teams and we have to utilize that.”
Hays-Lodge Pole 52, North Star 47
North Star 8 14 12 13 – 47
Hays-Lodge Pole 14 9 20 9 – 52
North Star – Cooper Spicher 18, Quinn Spinler 2, Gavin Spinler 19, Sam Ulmen 6, Jaxon Simonson 2. Totals: 13-61 14-29 47.
Hays-Lodge Pole – Ismael Amaro 5, Junior Long Fox 2, Jeff Sorrell 15, Gage Essert 12, Sterling White Cow 12, Keenan Stiffarm 4, Jalen Brockie 2. Totals: 20-60 8-18 52.
Halftime: Hays-Lodge Pole 23-22. 3-pointers: North Star 7-23 (Spicher 4, Gavin Spinler 3), H-LP 4-9 (Amaro 1, Essert 3). Rebounds: North Star 44 (Ulmen 17), H-LP 49 (Sorrell 11). Fouls: North Star 19, H-LP 21. Fouled out: Gavin Spinler.