BIG PINEY – The Puncher girls’ basketball team has every reason to be proud. Following two tough, bruising years in the 3A bracket, the effort the team put in over the past three seasons paid off with a ticket to the 2021 2A State Basketball Tournament – a first for the team in nearly two decades.
“We really deserve this win and we really deserve to make it to State because it’s the first time the Lady Punchers have been to State in 19 years, so this is super exciting,” said senior Cassidy Espenscheid.
Due to public health guidelines, officials changed the format for the 2A Regional Tournament. The action opened with quadrant play on Thursday, Feb. 25 in Big Piney. The first game against Wind River was high-stakes, with the winner advancing to state and the loser going home.
The Punchers came together when it mattered, overwhelming Wind River with a major 55-19 win and a spot at State.
“It’s been insane for three years with these guys, and this was the biggest win ever for us,” said senior Jakobi Hibbert.
“We deserve this,” fellow senior Ryker Goodman stated. “It’s been a crazy ride, and this feels great.”
The excited Punchers thanked their coaches and the community after trouncing Wind River.
“Brian Espenscheid and Faith Howard really pushed us to want to be here,” said junior Lena Hatch. “They gave us a goal and they gave us the material to do it.”
“The community also backed us up,” junior Hanna Hansen added. “They’ve had our back, no matter if we won or lost. They’ve showed up to every game and cheered for us, even if we lost by a lot, and they showed up for the good games too.”
In the end, the victory came down to teamwork and confidence.
“We worked so well together,” said junior Ceci Sambrano. “I feel like we all have this connection and we’re not just on the court as one player. We are literally sisters.”
“Our motivation over the years was never not there,” said junior Sierra Keiter. “We were always driven and we were always confident that we could get here and we finally did.”
Determined to hit the ground running in front of the home crowd, the Punchers swept the court in the first half, scoring 29 points while a solid defense held Wind River to nine.
Espenscheid set the pace for Big Piney with a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter and another outside shot in the second. Goodman and Hibbert steadily shot in 2-pointers before the halftime buzzer sounded.
Keiter scored a 2-pointer in the first quarter and Sambrano widened the gap with a 2-pointer and 3-pointer in the second quarter.
Showing no mercy in the second half, the Punchers outscored Wind River in the third quarter, 16-7. Espenscheid and Sambrano both tossed in a pair of 2-pointers. Goodman made a 2-pointer and pair of free throws. Hansen added two free throws to the tally and sophomore Hannah Runyon scored a 2-pointer.
The Big Piney defense kept the pressure on in the final quarter, holding Wind River to three points while Puncher offense shot in 10 points. Sophomores Sharianne Brower and Brynne Hoffman entered the game and added to the scorebook.
The second 2A Quadrant game pitted Big Piney against Wyoming Indian High School (WIHS) for the top seed going into the 2A West Regionals on Saturday, Feb. 27.
The Punchers ultimately fell in a close, physical match against WIHS, 41-32, but not before giving the 2A powerhouse and 2019 2A State Champion a run for its money.
WIHS finished the first half with a nine-point lead.
Goodman scored a 2-pointer in the third quarter, closing the gap to seven points. Goodman, Hibbert and Hatch kept the defensive pressure on, catching several rebounds. Espenscheid scored a 2- and 3-pointer to narrow the deficit.
WIHS entered the final quarter making baskets on several possessions. Undeterred, Big Piney answered back with baskets tossed in by Hansen and Goodman. Sambrano snatched a steal and broke away to score a layup.
Espenscheid caught a steal and Sambrano scored another 2-pointer to put the Punchers ahead by a point, 32-31.WIHS took over offensively as the clock ticked down.
The Punchers fell to Shoshoni in the 2A West Regional Tournament hosted by Riverton on Saturday. Defense got in some good plays, including a pair of steals by Hatch and Hibbert in the third quarter and two more steals by Keiter in the fourth.
Big Piney, however, looks forward to charging ahead at the State Tournament.
“I’m looking forward to being there with my teammates,” said Hibbert. “It’s an amazing opportunity to make new experiences and memories.”
“We’re really hoping that we can be State Champs, because I think that we can,” Espenscheid added.
“We know that we can win – we just did (against Wind River),” Goodman added. “We’ve proved ourselves over the past three years, and I’m super excited for State.”