Girls take 2nd at the ‘B’
More than a few cars and pickups traveling east on US-2 last week displayed stickers from high school sports teams on their bumpers. AM radio announced furious struggles for basketballs leaving “bodies on the floor,” and the parking lot at the Betty Englestad Sioux Arena was packed to capacity.
It was tournament time for North Dakota’s Class B girls’ high school basketball teams.
For Rugby High School’s Lady Panthers, that meant testing their mettle from Game One.
The team took the court last Thursday at 6 p.m., after the day’s first upset: the unseeded Kindred Vikings had knocked No. 2 seed Langdon Area out of contention for the title.
The unseeded Lady Panthers squared off against the No. 1 seed, Kidder County’s undefeated Lady Wolves, and pulled off an upset of their own.
Rugby’s victory began with a three point shot from guard Anni Stier, which established a lead the Panthers would keep for the entire game.
The end of the first quarter saw a 10-point lead for Rugby; Kidder County had only put 3 points on the board to Rugby’s 13.
The Panthers continued their blaze across the court with ten more points in the next quarter, leaving the Wolves to play catch up and pray for a shot to connect with the bucket. The Panthers led 23-7 at halftime.
The Lady Wolves’ catch-up game switched to overdrive in the third quarter as they began to match Rugby’s aggressive play with well-executed steals and rebounds, and Kidder County put 11 more points on the board to Rugby’s 7.
Rugby recharged for the fourth quarter, maintaining their lead even as the Lady Wolves turned up their offense to score 21 more points. But Rugby scored 17 more, with big shots from Karsyn Hager, Brooke and Maria Blessum, and Mykell Heidlebaugh sealing their 47-39 victory. The Lady Panthers hugged teammates and fans, and ran screaming to their locker room.
“It feels great. We got the monkey off our back,” Coach Jennifer Brossart said.
“But we knew we could beat this team. We finished the last year at the state tournament with a big win over Watford City. And when we walked into that locker room, we said, ‘this isn’t the end of it. We’re going to continue this to next year. And those four seniors wanted to finish their career on the Betty floor. And they just gave themselves a semifinal night.”
Brossart credited younger players with keeping the win secure. “Mykell Heidlebaugh, our eighth grader, came up. They (Kidder County) were making bucket after bucket. We getting down from sixteen, fourteen, twelve, and all of a sudden Mykell made a nice little shot, just to stop the bleeding,”
“And then, it was a foul fest. It was the longest second half of my life, with the media timeouts, but when we had to, we dropped down free throws. Jordan Senger, Mykell Heidlebaugh, Maria Blessum, Karsyn Hager. Free throws win ball games, and I think that’s testament tonight,” she added.
Wolves coach Dan Welder told the Tribune, “For the most part, I was proud of them at the end of the game. I thought they did a great job of coming back. I don’t think we were ready for the physicality that Rugby brought us the tough, man-to-man, in-your-face defense, so, I told them at half time, we were not playing Kidder County basketball. We needed to match their physicality, and I thought we did that in the second half. Hats off to Rugby. They made free throws at the end; they made some big shots. I was proud with the way we battled back.”
The Lady Panthers faced Hettinger-Scranton in Friday’s semifinals, and relied on their defensive skills against the Lady Night Hawks, who answered every Panther offensive with aggressive play of their own. The game’s half ended with a razor-thin 15-13 Rugby lead, and the third and fourth quarters saw more shots blocked and steals on both sides. A big 3-point shot in the fourth quarter for Hettinger-Scranton’s Bailee Pierce gave the Night Hawks a 31-30 lead before the Panthers pulled ahead for the win, with the help of free throws made by Sarah and Maria Blessum, and Stier.
Brossart characterized the game as “absolutely” one for defensive plays. “They (Hettinger-Scranton) run that extended 2-3 zone and they’re very lengthy up front. I think our girls did a good job, for the most part. We hit the gaps when we had to; we penetrated nicely. We attacked the glass, which is something we have a tendency not to do when we get a good defensive team like that, but credit to Hettinger-Scranton, they brought their defense tonight. That first half was a battle,” Brossart said.
“And the second half, we got lucky. We had a couple of key shots. And then, Karsyn Hager really drove it to the home stretch. We got some big boards and steals to keep it in our possession.”
“I think we really just had to be patient; we really communicated well, I think,” Stier said of the semifinal game. “We had to be patient, talk to each other, know where each other was at the whole time, and just slow it down and make smart passes.”
Hager agreed: ” We just had to work on the fundamentals of passes. Those pass fakes they were everywhere, too, so we had to work on the fundamentals.”
“Free throws are always a big part of every game. They really decide games, and I think it showed tonight,” Stier continued.
Senger said of the finals: “We’re pumped we’re ready for it. This is super exciting to get to this game, and we’re ready to go out there and just play as hard as we can.”
The Lady Panthers stepped onto the court before a packed house for the final game of the tournament. Rugby High students and Panther fans made the crowd a swath of orange, and a contingent from Trenton High even joined their ranks. “Cats stick together Tigers Panthers Go Rugby,” read one sign they held.
The Lady Panthers began their final game much as they had Thursday, with fast-paced play, aggressive steals and accurate shots. At the end of the first quarter, the state title seemed only three eight-minute periods away. Rugby led 13-2.
The Vikings put their offensive game into gear after that. Kindred’s Jordyn Burner sank three 3 pointers, and Kacie Burner made one of her own. Viking rebounds turned into 2 pointers, while Panther shot attempts missed their marks. The Lady Panthers stayed accurate with free throws, and Stier drew a foul in the last minute of the fourth quarter to put victory within reach.
But another Kindred score put the Vikings ahead, and 2 point win was theirs at the end of the game.
Stunned Lady Panthers hugged and consoled each other over the 47-49 loss.
Rugby High, unranked in polls and unseeded before the tournament, would have the #2 rank among North Dakota Class B girls’ teams for 2019.
Stier, who would be named to the Class B Girls’ All State 2019 team that evening, said she looked forward more basketball in her future. “I’ll be playing at the University of Jamestown next year,” she indicated.
Brossart said 3 point shots were “absolutely” key in the final game, but she looked forward to another season of Panther basketball. “We’ve got some nice, new players coming up,” Brossart said. “We’re in good hands.”
Sophomore Brooke Blessum said she was also looking forward to basketball next year. “I’m looking forward to it so we can get back to the state tournament.”