Rugby takes fifth at girls ‘B’ tournament
After four appearances at state for the Rugby Panther Class B girls’ basketball team since 2016, Coach Jen Brossart knows anything can happen in post-season play.
But unlike last year’s trip to the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, this year’s tournament held no surprises for Panther fans, or fans from any other random draw school, for that matter. All four top-seeded schools advanced to the semifinals after the first round last Thursday.
Surprises, and a trophy, would come later in the tournament for the Panthers.
The Panthers’ battle against the second seed Grafton Spoilers kicked the tournament off.
The Spoilers lived up to their moniker when they ran with the ball at their first opportunity and starter Carlee Sieben scored a quick layup. A three-pointer by her twin sister Cassie Sieben would come later in the game. Layups from Reagan Hanson and Walker Demers, who also nailed a free throw on a foul, came next. The Panthers, meanwhile, struggled to get inside the paint.
“We just ran into a really good, well-balanced team,” Brossart said of the game.
When the Panthers managed to get near the basket, shot and rebound attempts went awry more often than they hit their mark. Rugby’s Mykell Heidlebaugh made good on a three-pointer and rebounded another for two, and the quarter ended with Rugby trailing 5-10.
The Panthers found their focus momentarily in the second quarter when a two-point score by Brooke Blessum led to another two-pointer, drawing a foul. Brooke’s free throw point tied the game.
A Tesha Sobolik three-pointer put the Panthers ahead briefly, but Grafton’s Carlee Sieben answered with a three-pointer of her own and another layup. Two-pointers by Cassie Erickson, Julia Dusek and Demers would contribute to the Spoilers’ 11-point second quarter total, and although Rugby matched with 11 points of their own, their five-point deficit stayed with them. The half ended with a 21-16 Grafton lead.
The third quarter saw the Spoilers charge onto the court ready to put more points on the board, leaving the Panthers farther behind. Layups came from Dusek, the Sieben Sisters, Anna Carignan and Erickson. Demers put up two layups in succession, and the Spoilers racked up 19 points in the quarter.
The Panthers tried to pace Grafton, and Sarah Blessum wove quickly around the towering Spoilers, connecting with the basket for two points twice, then making good on a free throw. Heidlebaugh shot another three-pointer, and Bella McCabe rounded out the Panthers’ nine point score total for the quarter with a free throw bucket of her own.
The Panthers faced a 15-point shortfall at the start of the fourth quarter. Brooke Blessum and her cousin Sarah Blessum went to work perfecting their rebound accuracy. Brooke Blessum took advantage of two free throw opportunities to score four points. Heidlebaugh came in with another three-pointer and made good inside the paint for two more. McCabe put in a rebound shot for two.
The Panthers had scored 20 more points to the Spoilers’ 21, ending the game with a 45-61 loss.
Brossart said the Panthers, who lost seniors who took them to second place at state last year, had struggled at the beginning of the season to find a team identity.
“I just think it was a matter of finding some girls who would take over the helm and find identity that we lost to graduation,” Brossart noted. “Our girls definitely had a purpose. They knew that they wanted to get back here. It was just a matter of how they were going to do that. We as coaches just tried to help them along and say, ‘Hey, this is your team and it’s up to you how you want to go with it.’ We just had some bumps and bruises along the way.”
Brossart added, “I thought for the most part, they came along nicely at the end and were jelling at the right time.”
Brossart said the Spoilers knew “The Betty” well, and used that familiarity to their advantage in the first round game.
“(Grafton) played the regional tournament on that floor. They really knew every inch of the floor and you could tell that. They had confidence galore playing on that floor,” Brossart noted.
“And our girls were really flat. We missed a lot of easy shots. We missed some layups. And we gave up way too many offensive boards. And they’re gonna kill you. I mean, they’re already tall to begin with and when you’re giving them offensive boards and we’re not boxing out, it doesn’t make for a good recipe,” Brossart added.
“So, I was happy with their fight at the end in the fourth quarter. We talked about how at the end of the game, they’ve got to take that fight and go into the next game with it. We can still win two games here, and winning two out of three games is not a bad deal.”
Brossart’s prediction would prove true.
The Shiloh Christian Skyhawks were next on the Panthers’ schedule, giving Rugby the first of two wins for the tournament.
The first game score went to the Panthers after a quick two-pointer by Sarah Blessum.
But the Skyhawks brought the tenacity they had shown the #3 Trenton Tigers the day before. Defensive players stayed on the Panthers throughout the first quarter, matching point for point and keeping their offense in check. The quarter ended with a 10-10 tie after a three-pointer by Skyhawk Grace Kelly added to buckets by Aliya Schock, and Hannah Westin.
Sarah Blessum led the Panther scoring drive, with Brooke adding two rebounds of her own.
The Skyhawks stayed on the Panthers in the second quarter, and the Panthers began to get into foul trouble. Skyhawk Jacie Hall capitalized on the fouls against her, sinking four out of four free throw attempts. A two-pointer by Hall added to a shot outside the paint from Kelsey Mischel, and a free throw from Kelly.
At the end of the first half, the Skyhawks led by one point, 20-19.
The Panthers broke free of Shiloh’s grip in the second half. Freshman Kendyl Hager came off the bench to score eight points total after a three-pointer from near half court. Brooke Blessum’s shots pulled the Panthers ahead and Heidlebaugh worked to put more distance in front of Shiloh.
Gabriella Sullivan and McCabe also helped rake in an impressive 22 Panther points in the third quarter. The Panthers held a 41-32 lead as the fourth quarter began.
Hall and the Skyhawks did their best to catch up, but the Panthers held onto their lead in the fourth quarter. The game ended with a 57-51 Rugby win.
“We just wanted to run down the clock, move the ball and find that opening and get an easy two points off of it,” Brooke Blessum said of the game. “Hopefully we can get that win tomorrow again.”
Teammate Sobolik said of the game, “In the first two quarters, it was pretty close the whole time. We knew that if we wanted to get up top and play for that consolation championship we’d have to talk more and box out and work our hardest so we can get that ‘dub.'”
Brossart said of the Panthers, “We were patient. We talked about coming out in the third quarter, the first three minutes are everything. I thought we took control in the first three minutes there. Yesterday was the difference there. We didn’t come out in the third quarter and play and we had to battle from behind.”
“We talked about going to the regional semifinal and the championship game of the regionals and said, “Hey, the second half is where we’ve got to make our hay.’ So, we did that and we had some nice contributions from girls off the bench, specifically Kendyl Hager. That was a huge boost. No deer in the headlights for her. That’s her first time on the state floor and she took full advantage of it,” Brossart added.
Hager joined her big sister, Karsyn, in the stands after the second round game. Karsyn, a member of the 2019 Panther basketball squad that had placed second in the state, was in town on a break from her studies at Bismarck State College.
“Yesterday I didn’t get to go in, but I was on the bench, staying ready at all times,” Kendyl Hager said. “Today at practice, I was doing really good and the coaches were saying, ‘You’ve got to be ready for tonight.’ I wasn’t nervous at all. I was ready to have fun and go out there and shoot. It was really fun.”
“I hope I get out there and have some fun with my team again,” Hager added.
Hager’s chance for more fun came the next day, when the Panthers faced the LaMoure-Litchville-Marion Loboes.
The Panthers started strong in the first quarter, with scores from Brooke Blessum, Heidlebaugh and Hager totaling 14 points. The Loboes trailed with 8 points.
The Loboes came back strong in the second quarter, tying the game 27-27 at halftime thanks to offensive plays by score leaders Ellie Holen, Molly Musland and Allie Hebl.
The third quarter saw the Panthers unleash an aggressive 15 point score drive, led by Brooke Blessum and Heidlebaugh, with two points from Sobolik. The Panther defense kept the Loboes at bay, limiting Musland and Kaylynn Siedschlag to 9 points for a 42-36 Rugby lead.
Although Musland and the Loboes regrouped for a fourth quarter scoring drive that narrowed Rugby’s lead, the game ended with a 50-45 Panther win and fifth-place trophy.
“To win two games at the State B is an excellent job,” Brossart said. “For this young team to take fifth place, I couldn’t be more proud of these girls today. They fought hard. It’s tough when you lose that first game when you know you want to play for that championship. But this team is young and they have grit, and they fought like heck and they got that win against that very good LaMoure team.”
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