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CASPER — That old saying “nobody’s perfect” doesn’t really apply here.
Tongue River’s 28-0 season speaks for itself, and the team’s three-day run in Casper solidified what many may have already known. The Lady Eagles are the best team in 2A girls basketball this year, 2013 state champs.
“It sunk in as soon as they started calling our names out onto the floor before the game,” Lady Eagles senior Sarah Nielsen said. “As soon as the announcer said, ‘this is the state championship game’ I was like ‘Oh my God.’ I tried to just think of it as just another game, but all I could think about was that it’s a championship game, but I knew I still had to play like I’ve been playing.”
Nielsen scored 13 points and had eight rebounds Saturday to lead her team over an upstart Thermopolis squad in the title game by a final score of 41-30. Her 15-point first half Friday night helped lift the Lady Eagles there.
“They did a great job first half with three point shots,” head coach Dianne Moser said of the challenger, Thermopolis. “We were defending their leading scorer, their go-to player, I thought we held her in check, but a couple other gals stepped up and hit 3s. We talked second half about defending, I think they only had one 3 second half, so much better defense second half.”
That leading scorer, Dana Bjorhus, had knocked Big Horn out of the winner’s bracket in the first round Thursday with a last-second shot, and then helped her team past last year’s state champ, Lovell, in the semifinals Saturday.
But the Lady Eagles entire team trumped Thermopolis’ star-player-based attack. Reaching 28 wins without suffering a single loss, or anything close to one, takes team chemistry.
“They are great kids,” Moser said. “Accepting their roles, I’ve got some upper classmen that don’t get the minutes that some of the younger kids do, but they’ve been supportive of the team concept all year long. They’ve worked hard, they’ve really worked hard.”
Seemingly attached at the hip, the Lady Eagles genuinely like each other. The hugging and smiling was infectious throughout the Casper Events Center Saturday night.
“Like a million, it’s ridiculous,” Tara Stimpson said of how many times she’d embraced her teammates over the past two weeks. The Lady Eagles won the 2A East Regional title last weekend in front of home fans in Dayton, seeing increasingly tougher competition but not missing a beat.
“We just worked for it all season long,” Stimpson added, noting that while the competition was tougher this weekend, they settled in with help from each other.
“Out of all these four years I’ve been playing, this year I really connected with all of them,” Nielsen added. “Not just me, but everyone. We’re together on and off the court. We told each other, that if this is what we really want, we’re going to have to stay together, and we can make it happen. The team chemistry, the friendship is what really helped.”
Junior point guard Sarah Rawlings, the Lady Eagles heartbeat, hit a key second-quarter jumper Saturday after an offensive rebound from Nielsen to help withstand the five made 3-pointers from the Lady Bobcats. She finished with four points, three assists and two steals — her statline not necessarily indicative of her always-disruptive defensive presence across the floor.
“We’re all best friends on the court,” Rawlings said, deflecting credit to her team. “We all know we wanted this as much as everyone else. It’s been a dream of ours since we were little together.”
There were plenty of other important performances Saturday. Eryn Aksamit was four for four from the field, scoring a key bucket as she was fouled in the third quarter and the Lady Eagles finally built their 10-point lead. Games without double-digit advantages were uncommon for Tongue River this season: they won 27 of their 28 games by at least 10 points.
One of the many underrated parts of the Lady Eagles dominance this year was the guard play of Megan Meyers and Stimpson. When defenses keyed on Rawlings, her dishes to the two wing players were usually followed by a made 3-point shot. Meyers scored her 12 points on four made 3s Saturday night.
“We really didn’t think about undefeated until we got closer to tournament time,” Moser said. “People say all the time, you should have lost one along the way. You get to a point when you’re just coaching kids to win, and to play hard, and what happens happens.
“We’ll take it,” she said of the accomplishment, smiling.
Still, all the impressive pieces of a perfect season probably haven’t sunk in yet, Nielsen admitted, saying that she was perhaps the most in shock out of all the elated girls in green jerseys.
“This is a day I’ve been looking forward to,” Nielsen said, still out of breath. “I knew we had it all four years, we had the potential with each team, but this year we knew we had it. This year we knew that we could be great. We didn’t know that we could be undefeated, but we just kept with it and I think that’s what really helped us.”
For Tongue River, this is the first title since 2010 under Moser, who hoisted her eighth state championship trophy Saturday night.
The Lady Eagles’ normally stoic leader even shed a few tears of her own as she watched the girls huddle together in celebration and then gather on the podium.
“This is number eight, but they’re all sweet,” she said. “They all have special memories, and this one is right in there.”
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