BIG HORN — Friday’s matchup between the Big Horn and Tongue River boys features two teams heading in opposite directions. The Rams have surged into first place in the Northeast Conference after four consecutive victories, putting their conference record at 5-1, while the Eagles are coming off two dispiriting losses, dropping them to 3-3 and fourth place in the conference.
However, the script could easily be flipped later this week. Big Horn’s lone conference loss came at Tongue River Jan. 20 in an overtime thriller that saw Big Horn erase an 11-point deficit in the final two minutes before ultimately losing by three.
The two teams manifest their talents in vastly different ways. Tongue River has good height and two players — Jaren Fritz and Jay Keo — who have single-handedly taken over stretches of games. Big Horn is smaller and more dependent on a collective defensive effort and has several players who can carry the team on any given night.
The two contrasting styles were evident in the first game between the two teams.
Fritz and Keo combined for 54 points and made huge shots down the stretch, while Big Horn snagged 31 offensive rebounds, the most in any 2A game this season.
Still, Tongue River wants to force the Rams to play more half-court offense because of the Eagles’ size advantage. Conversely, getting into more transition offense could benefit Big Horn.
“If we can get down and get into our offense before they set up into that zone, I think that’s going to be a big key,” Big Horn head coach Ryan Alley said.
Defensively, Alley said the Rams must improve against Fritz and Keo, who faced little resistance in the previous matchup. Alley plans to mainly have Carson Bates and Kade Eisele guard Keo, and Quinn McCafferty and Kade VanDyken on Fritz.
Tongue River head coach Ronnie Stewart said he looks forward to the coaching changes and complimented the Rams’ effort and defensive strategy.
“Big Horn is just relentless,” Stewart said. “They just go after the ball, even if that means they’re going to give up fouls. They try to force you to take quick shots and a lot of teams get suckered into that. We’re guilty of that as well.”
Still, Stewart said the victory over Big Horn last month was a big hurdle for Tongue River to overcome, because the Rams have had the Eagles’ number in recent years. Big Horn had won four in a row before the overtime loss. Stewart added that the team watched film of the first game to emphasize late-game mistakes, which included careless turnovers and unnecessary fouls.
“We had a few good bounces go our way, and we can’t expect that to happen again,” Stewart said. “If we can just be a little bit more disciplined, come out with a little more energy, not turnover the ball and not give up so many offensive rebounds, I think it’s ours to lose.”
Alley expects a close contest, which the Rams are familiar with this season. Seven of their games have been decided by three points or less, with Big Horn winning four of them.
“Each week we seem to find a new way to win,” Alley said. “We’re getting kind of used to — not that it’s a good thing, necessarily — coming back from behind or starting slow and having to finish in the last seconds of the game.”
The Eagles defeated Big Horn in a nail-biter last month but haven’t played as many tight games this season.
If the Eagles can beat the Rams again — on the road this time — they will have a couple of resume-building wins come playoff time. If Big Horn wins, it stays atop the conference and puts itself in better position for another run to the state tournament.
The schools’ proximity figures to provide an exciting, heated atmosphere.
“The rivalry might not be what it used to be, but being part of the same district, these boys know each other well and are friends,” Stewart said. “Me and coach Alley are great friends, too. But make no mistake, we want to beat each other really bad.”
The game tips off Friday at 7 p.m. in Big Horn.