BIG HORN — The first matchup between the Big Horn and Tongue River girls basketball teams served as a reminder for the Lady Eagles: no matter how large its deficit, Big Horn is always in the game. The Lady Rams trailed by six after a sluggish first half but rebounded nicely, controlling the second half to take home a 12-point win.
“That’s one of the biggest takeaways from that game is just how quickly a team can go on a run and how quickly a team can build momentum off turnovers,” Tongue River head coach Tyler Hanson said.
Hanson has emphasized all season long the need to play consistently for all four quarters. The Lady Eagles appear to have taken the lesson to heart since the Big Horn game, as they have gone 2-2 since, picking up both of their conference wins, which positions them in fourth within the Northeast conference.
Big Horn possesses the ability to come back and go on runs like it did in the second half against Tongue River, but like the Lady Eagles, the Lady Rams are still trying to put everything together for a full 32 minutes. Big Horn has seesawed between wins and losses throughout the season, currently standing at 3-3, third in the conference.
The Lady Rams won a state championship last year, ending their season with 18 consecutive wins. This year, however, they haven’t won more than two games in a row, most recently falling in a close contest at Sundance.
In order to bounce back and get a victory Friday, the Lady Rams have to clamp down and get stops.
“It always starts on the defensive end,” Big Horn head coach Michael McGuire said. “When we’re getting after it defensively and communicating and playing the style of ball we’re capable of, that usually leads to good offense for us.”
Ideally, McGuire wants his team to speed up the game.
“When we step on the floor against just about anybody, we’re going to be about as athletic,” McGuire said. “We feel like we can go eight or nine (players) deep with athletic kids that can run up and down the floor.”
Hanson agreed, saying Big Horn’s length and athleticism present problems for most opponents, especially when the Lady Rams are on defense.
“They’re able to keep you in front if you try to beat them off the dribble,” Hanson said. “They close down driving lanes pretty quick and then obviously you’ve got some pretty long arms closing out on your shooters, too.”
While the Lady Rams have depth, they lack top-notch scoring, which perhaps partly explains their late-game struggles this season. Last season, Big Horn had All-State performers Abby Buckingham and Emily Blaney to carry the team. Without any go-to scorer, the Lady Rams have played more of an egalitarian style this year, with no one averaging more than 10 points per game.
“We have a lot of girls that are capable,” McGuire said. “If we can get everybody to play consistently all the time, we have a chance to be a real good team, but we’re kind of up and down right now.”
That Big Horn inconsistency and lack of a standout offensive threat will allow Tongue River to play its effective 3-2 zone defense, which Hanson implemented partway through the season, and it’s causing offensive problems for the Lady Eagles’ opponents. In a season full of tough losses and offensive struggles, Tongue River can hang its hat on halfcourt defensive execution.
McGuire said the Lady Eagles’ unique defensive scheme is difficult to simulate in practice because of its unfamiliarity, so Big Horn will watch a little more film than usual, searching for potential spots of weakness.
A Big Horn win could put some separation between the Lady Rams and the bottom three teams in the conference. A Tongue River win would be the Lady Eagles’ signature victory of the season so far, tie them with Big Horn in the conference standings and all but guarantee a playoff berth.
Big Horn has a better record and home court advantage, but Tongue River’s defense could prove fruitful, as long as the Lady Eagles remember not to rest on a lead.
The game starts at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Big Horn.