CASPER – Big Piney squared off against Sundance in a historic semifinal match at the 2A State Basketball Championships in Casper on March 5. The Bulldogs entered the game with a 21-1 overall record and built up a nine-point lead by the final quarter.
Undaunted, the Punchers fought their way back to tie the game, 59-59, when the regulation buzzer sounded.
Sundance struck first in overtime with a 2-pointer. Senior Kaden Raza caught a rebound and tipped the ball back into the net, tying the score, 61-61. Sundance faltered on its next play with an offensive foul. Big Piney took over and sent the ball down the court.
Senior Edwin Gonzalez escaped Sundance’s line of defense with 1 minute remaining on the clock.
Sensing the opening from the point position, senior Carlos Munoz passed to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez dove into the paint and then took a quick step back across the perimeter. Arms up and feet off the ground, Gonzalez sent the ball sailing into the net, sealing the 64-61 win for the Punchers.
Hysterical Big Piney fans flew to their feet. The Punchers had just scored the golden ticket to the State Championship game for the first time in decades.
“I don’t even know how I feel right now,” said Raza. “State Championship, here we come!”
“My emotions are all over the place right now,” added Munoz. “But that’s what we came here for – to play for a State Championship.”
“It feels amazing, especially for the community,” Gonzalez stated. “The last time Big Piney was in the State Championship round was 1982, when one of our coaches, John Fear, was in the game. This was really good for the community – last year was hard for us. Personally, for me, I wanted to do it not only for my coach, but for one of our friends that passed away last year, Taytan Wing.”
The road to the Championship game/hometown proud
Big Piney advanced to Friday’s semifinal game against Sundance by defeating Big Horn in the quarterfinals, 37-34.
After handing Sundance its second season defeat, the Punchers next hit the court for the Championship game against Rocky Mountain, the 2A West Regional Champion.
Big Piney battled its opponent to a 42-42 stalemate at the end of four quarters on Saturday. Rocky Mountain managed to edge ahead during overtime to take the Championship, 53-42.
Following the semifinal win against Sundance, head coach Nate Strong expressed great pride in the team regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard.
“We’ve taught the team that their self-worth isn’t about winning or losing, but showing up and working hard every single day,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of tragedy in Big Piney. This puts everything into perspective. It’s basketball. It’s a fun game and we try to be as competitive as we can, but at the end of the day, it’s basketball. Win or lose, nothing has changed about the team we have. We’re just proud of the boys, we love them dearly and we played one heck of a game today.”
Big Horn, Friday a.m.
Big Horn took the initiative in the first half, outscoring the Punchers, 22-16. Big Piney turned the tables in the second half, shooting in 22 points to 13 from Big Horn.
Defensive pressure by Raza and junior Ethan Whiterock forced a turnover in the third quarter, allowing Gonzalez to score a 3-pointer. Whiterock snatched a steal and Hughes rebounded a missed shot. Whiterock ended the quarter with a deep outside shot.
A 2-pointer by junior Seth Stoutenburg put Big Piney in the lead as the final quarter opened. Senior Camron Thomas maintained the Punchers’ lead with a 3-pointer.
“We knew the momentum was changing at that point, and we just kept firing and played strong,” said Thomas. “It was a great feeling once we got ahead.”
Thomas forced a turnover, setting Munoz up for a 3-pointer. Whiterock ended the game with a steal.
“Our defense stepped up (against Big Horn),” said Munoz. “I think part of that was they couldn’t handle our press, so we just pressed them early right after we found that out.”
Sundance, Friday p.m.
Big Piney and the Bulldogs played each other to a 12-12 draw in the first quarter. Sundance edged ahead by five points, 23-18, at halftime. Both teams shot in 17 points in the third quarter.
Sundance widened its lead to nine points in the final quarter. Gonzalez fired in a 3-pointer and Raza a 2-pointer to close the gap to six points. Munoz tossed in a deep outside shot, putting Big Piney within three points of taking the lead.
Thomas kept the Puncher drive going, catching a foul on a 2-pointer and making good on a free throw.
Whiterock and Gonzalez responded to Sundance’s attempt to get ahead with a pair of 3-pointers.
“Ethan (Whiterock) really gave me that confidence to keep going, and after he had missed (a free throw), I tried to give him the same thing – that confidence,” Gonzalez said. “And he kept going and he got that shot.”
Munoz rounded out the fourth quarter with two free throws, leading to a tie and overtime.
“That was an absolute nailbiter, but we played it out to the end,” Thomas said. “We came out with a win and it feels great.”
“A lot of credit goes to our opponent,” said coach Strong. “It brings out the best in both when you get to play somebody that good, and that game was fun.”
“I’m pretty hyped up about it,” said Hughes after the historic win.
Rocky Mountain, Saturday p.m.
Big Piney hit the ground running in the first quarter, outscoring the Grizzlies, 16-10. Rocky Mountain answered back in the second quarter, holding the Punchers to five points. Defensive pressure by Hughes and Munoz at the end of the quarter kept the Grizzlies on their feet.
Rocky Mountain intensified its offensive in the third quarter. Sophomore Jovany Munoz and Stoutenburg kept the Punchers on the scoreboard.
The Punchers battled back to close the gap in the fourth quarter and tie the game. Rocky Mountain took advantage of the charity stripe to take the win in overtime.
The Punchers held their heads high following the emotional loss.
“We have a really strong brotherhood, and nothing’s going to be worth more than that brotherhood,” said Munoz. “It would be nice to have a State Championship, but it’s about the memories we’ve made, and I think that is what’s is important.”
“We’ve accomplished more than what a lot of other Big Piney teams have ever done,” said Gonzalez. “Hopefully, in the next few years, (Big Piney) can keep this going and get a championship. But for now – some of us seniors, me, Kaden, Carlos, Liam, Cam – our time here is done. We’ve done what we could.”