Puncher girls demonstrate grit at State
Robert Galbreath photos
CASPER – An excited crowd pressed against head girls’ basketball coach Brian Espenscheid and his team following a 63-59 double overtime upset against Moorcroft at the 2A State Girls’ Basketball Championship.
Defeating Moorcroft in the consolation semifinals was a testament to the girls’ improvement over three seasons. Big Piney proved its ability to run neck and neck against any opponent it crossed.
On March 6, during the consolation semifinal against Moorcroft, the girls battled their way out of a 12-point deficit to tie the game, 47-47. Gritting their teeth through two rounds of overtime, the Punchers advanced to the consolation championship round.
“We’ve been looking for that win,” coach Espenscheid said after the victory. “We’ve been really close and fought a lot of really good teams and it felt like we could beat somebody and we finally did. I’m proud of all of the kids – they played their guts out.”
“These last couple of years have been super rough, so it’s cool that we have a chance to be fourth in the state,” said senior Cassidy Espenscheid after beating Moorcroft. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
“It comes from our hearts,” added junior Ceci Sambrano. “We love basketball to the end of our lives. When we knew that we could place, we took that advantage and put it in our heads and it was just all heart and soul right there.”
“It’s like a spark,” said senior Ryker Goodman. “Once that spark starts, the team is on fire.”
A rollercoaster ride
Big Piney faced tough opposition from the start. The tournament opened with a game against No. 1 Lusk. Despite strong resistance from the Punchers, Lusk stayed ahead through four quarters to take the win, 42-33.
The loss placed Big Piney in the consolation semifinals against Moorcroft early on Saturday at Natrona County High School.
“The team played as well as they could play and they just kept fighting,” said coach Espenscheid. “All year, we were down and we fought back. We just couldn’t quite get over the hump, and today, we got over the hump.”
Big Piney’s win pitted them against Pine Bluffs in the consolation championship. Trailing by several possessions throughout the first half, Big Piney managed to claw its way out and take the lead twice in the third and fourth quarter. As the last seconds ticked down, Pine Bluffs pulled off a buzzer-beating 3-pointer for the win, 43-42.
Lusk, Friday a.m.
The Niobrara County Tigers held the lead at halftime, 22-14.
Big Piney ramped up its defense in the third quarter. Junior Sierra Keiter opened play with a steal. Espenscheid, Goodman and junior Hanna Hansen caught a string of rebounds. Defensive pressure by junior Autumn Wright and sophomore Hannah Runyon forced two turnovers in a row.
Both teams scored 12 points in the final quarter, capped off by a 2-pointer and free throw by Sambrano.
“I think we played really aggressive against Lusk,” said Goodman, “At first, it was a little shocking being at State, but once we got toward the end of the game, we kept our heads up, just kept playing and stuck together as a team.”
“Our offense wasn’t the greatest, but our defense was really good,” added Espenscheid. “We shut down their two best girls – that was our goal in the first place.”
Moorcroft, Saturday a.m.
The Lady Wolves put up a powerful offensive in the second and third quarters, nearly doubling the points scored by the Punchers. Refusing to yield the court, Big Piney closed the gap in the fourth quarter.
Hansen and senior Jakobi Hibbert stepped up to the charity stripe and shot in free throws with 100-percent accuracy. Espenscheid scored two shots from outside the perimeter to close the gap to two points. A free throw by junior Lena Hatch narrowed the deficit to a point. Goodman followed up with a 2-pointer and a final free throw by Hansen tied the match, 47-47.
Sambrano caught a rebound early in the first overtime, broke away, and shot in a deep 3-pointer to put Big Piney ahead, 51-50. A basket inside the paint by Hansen widened the Punchers' lead to 53-51. Espenscheid followed up with two free throws.
Moorcroft turned the tables and went on a four-point run, resulting in a 55-55 stalemate and a second overtime. Hansen proved her accuracy at the charity stripe and shot in four of four free throws. Sambrano topped the game off with a 2-pointer.
“I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life,” said Keiter. “These girls mean everything to me, and I’m glad the win was with them today.”
“There’s nothing like playing with people that you trust with your life,” said Hibbert. “Part of what helps us come out stronger is that we remember all the people behind us and all the people that helped us get here, including our seniors from last year.”
“I wouldn’t want to be here with any other girls,” Hansen added. “Like coach Espenscheid said, we’ve got 19 years of past Punchers with us, so this win was cool.”
Pine Bluffs, Saturday p.m.
The Hornets hit the ground running, outscoring the Punchers, 18-5, in the first quarter. Big Piney responded in the second quarter with 12 points, while defense held Pine Bluffs to four points. Hibbert, Goodman and Sambrano each grabbed a steal before the halftime buzzer sounded.
Big Piney continued to edge up in the third quarter, outscoring the Hornets, 15-13. Keiter pulled off a steal, setting Espenscheid up for a 2-pointer and placing Big Piney within three points of its rival. Hansen shot in a 2-pointer, followed by a three-point play by Goodman after she caught a foul on a 2-pointer.
Forcing a turnover, Goodman allowed Keiter to score a 2-pointer, putting Big Piney ahead until Pine Bluffs seized the lead at the end of the quarter, 35-32.
Hibbert and Hatch stepped up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter with a pair of steals. Keiter once again closed the gap to two points with a pair of free throws. A 3-pointer by Espenscheid put Big Piney in the lead. Pine Bluffs managed to get one shot in as the final buzzer sounded to take the win by a point.
Despite the loss, the Punchers showed the ability to come together as a team in each game when the going got tough.
“The simple fact that we wouldn’t want anybody else next to us doing this says a lot about our team,” said Hatch.