Grappling with giants
Chiefs battle to third-place finish at divisionals
It was a nice little run while it lasted, the kind that can carry over into next year. But the Ronan boys' fun run ran out of momentum on Monday.
With nothing to lose and nobody expecting them to do much, the Ronan Chiefs put together an impressive string of basketball games at last weekend’s Northwestern A Divisional, playing five games in five days. After dropping a semifinal game to eventual champ Columbia Falls, the Chiefs battled back on Saturday to win the consolation championship. That victory forced a challenge game on Monday night, with a state berth on the line.
But a day of rest wasn’t enough as Ronan’s jump shot came up short in a 54-38 loss to Polson to end the Chiefs’ run.
Ronan opened the tournament with a 56-41 win over Whitefish on Thursday. The Chiefs set the tone with a full-court press to throw off the half-court oriented Bulldogs, whose size in the paint could create matchup problems for Ronan.
“We just figured it being the first game of the tournament we’d press and get after them. We tried to win the game before they got to half-court,” Ronan head coach Steve Woll said.
The plan worked well. Whitefish’s scoring forward, Connor Silliker only hit three buckets and they were all in the first half. He also went just 4-for-11 from the line.
On the other end of the floor, Ronan’s Kevin Wroblewski stroked it, hitting four three-pointers and three from inside the arc to lead the Chiefs’ offensive charge. J.J. Tanner’s frenetic guard play led to eight more buckets and 16 points on the night, while Justin Dusty Bull turned it on with four field goals in the second half to notch 12 points.
The win sent Ronan roaring into the teeth of the lion as the Chiefs faced the defending state champ Columbia Falls Wildcats in a Friday night semifinal.
Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the Wildcats would not be denied. With a large, vocal crowd behind them, the Cats pounded the ball away inside and didn’t miss much outside as they rolled to a 64-36 win.
“It was David and Goliath and Goliath won,” coach Woll explained. “
The out-sized Chiefs tried their best to create shot opportunities in creases, but the Wildcats’ defense didn’t give them many chances. Tanner scored eight points for Ronan, but Wroblewski scored just five points on the night and Dusty Bull went scoreless.
“Anytime Justin and Kevin combine for five points, we’re in trouble,” Woll said. “They are just so big and physical it was tough. Too much beef.”
The loss bounced Ronan into the loser-out bracket, starting with a rematch against Whitefish on Saturday morning. Coach Woll admitted that he was concerned that the Bulldogs would have fresher legs, not having played since Thursday’s loss to the Chiefs.
Although the Chiefs came out hustling and took a 17-16 lead through the first quarter, but Ronan’s offense went completely flat in the second quarter. The Chiefs couldn’t hit anything from the floor or the free throw line, while the Bulldogs took a 28-17 lead.
But the Chiefs got a spark of hope when sophomore Brady Oakland came in off the bench, drove the baseline and laid the ball in with three seconds remaining in the half to cut Whitefish’s lead to nine (28-19).
“We weren’t sure how much gas we were going to have in the tank. We knew our kids were going to be tired,” Woll explained. “We tried to get out and try to get the backcourt stuff pressured. We wanted to be close at half, but we only scored two in the third ... a lot of that was our legs (being tired).”
In the locker room, Woll explained the obvious to his young team. Win and you keep playing. Lose and you go home.
“We had a little pep talk at half,” Woll said. “I said ‘This is it ... 16 minutes do or die’ and I told the other guys (on the bench) they had better be ready to play. And they responded. I don’t know what it was, but all of a sudden coming out of the locker room we found another gear. And we had to find a lot of gears to play three games in less than 24 hours.”
With their backs against the wall, the Chiefs hustled their way to a tie game (31-31) four minutes into the third quarter and then the battle was on.
Oakland came in off the bench and hauled in some big rebounds and stole a ball with 1:16 left that led to a Dusty Bull layup that tied the game at 35-35. Whitefish got a three-point play off a steal with one second remaining in the third frame to take a 38-35 lead, and the Dogs built that lead to seven (42-35) early in the fourth.
But then the Chiefs found yet another gear.
At the 6:16 mark of the fourth, a Dusty Bull steal led to a Ronan fast-break where a Lucus Black catch-pass in mid-air found Hungerford for a layup. It was one of those thrilling plays that lit up the gym, and the Chiefs were back up and running.
On the next trip down the floor, Tanner drilled a three, then Colten Cheff stole the ball to start another break with Black laying it in to tie the game at 42-42.
After trading some free throws, the game was tied 44-44 going into the final three minutes. Ronan’s hard work on the boards started to pay off when Oakland tipped the ball away for a Whitefish turnover that led to a dramatic offensive rebound and put-back in mid-air by Dusty Bull, plus an and-one free throw, to give Ronan a 47-44 lead with 2:30 to go.
And the Chiefs never gave the lead back.
Oakland stole the ball on Whitefish’s next possession, then Black did it again with 1:57 left. Black’s bucket underneath on an inbound play made it 50-44 and an Oakland free throw at the 1:21 mark made it 51-44.
Whitefish cut the Ronan lead to 53-51 with a jumper with 25 seconds remaining, but the Chiefs hit four of six free throws down the stretch to ice the 57-51 win.
Dusty Bull netted 17 and Tanner had 12 to lead Ronan on the scoreboard, followed by Hungerford with nine and Black with eight.
“It was pretty big that we came out boom-boom in the fourth and cut the deficit. We came out and did some good things to get the win,” Woll said. “We went to Justin (Dusty Bull) in the fourth, but Lucus (Black) and Marcus (Hungerford) dug deep, too. And how about Brady (Oakland)? He and Colten (Cheff) gave us a huge lift off the bench. Brady kind of turned the tide by himself. Colten wasn’t afraid to bang with (Whitefish forward/post) Silliker and Marcus dug deep in our pressure defense stuff.”
The victory sent Ronan into the evening consolation championship against Libby, with the winner earning third place and a chance at a challenge game, if the second-place finisher hadn’t already beaten them.
Libby anticipated Ronan’s fast-paced attack and started four guards to try to counter the fast Chiefs. But that was just fine with coach Woll.
“We wanted to keep it close in the first half ... So, we sat back and conserved energy and made our push in the second half,” Woll explained.
The Chiefs may have cooled their jets, but they still held an 18-17 lead at the half. Wroblewski led the Chiefs on a second half charge, drilling five of 10 three-pointers and two free throws for 17 points. Dusty Bull also hit two key buckets down the stretch in the fourth, the last at the 1:45 mark to give Ronan a 43-40 lead.
But then it got real interesting.
With a three-point lead and the ball with under a minute to play, Woll was screaming to pull the ball out and spread the floor. But, Tanner saw a wide-open jumper opportunity and decided to take it.
Judging from Woll’s reaction on the sideline, that shot was definitely not what Tanner’s coach had in mind. When the shot clanked off the rim, Libby’s Colton Cannon responded at the other end of the floor with a driving layup that cut Ronan’s lead to one (43-42) with 49 seconds to go.
Then, after a Ronan pass went awry, Cannon hit a free throw to tie the game at 43-43 with 18 seconds to go.
But, redemption found its way back to Tanner on the next possession as he hit a layup with eight seconds on the clock to put Ronan back up 45-43. Even better, the Chiefs’ press forced a bad Whitefish pass out of bounds for a key turnover.
A pair of free throws by Wroblewski and a layup by Hungerford iced the 49-43 win for Ronan and the Chiefs earned a chance at a challenge game.
“JJ (Tanner) went from goat to hero in about 43 seconds,” coach Woll chuckled. “But Lucus and Justin played some big guard defense ... Kevin hit some big shots and we shot the ball really well. We made some mental mistakes down the stretch (but) the heart of our team pulled it out.”
Later that night, Columbia Falls beat Polson in the championship to open the door for the Chiefs to challenge the Pirates on Monday night in a 6 p.m. contest at Glacier gym.
But, even with a day of rest on Sunday, the gas finally ran out of Ronan’s tank.
The Chiefs worked hard, but their tired legs left their jump shots on the rim all night long. Ronan shot a meager 27 percent from the floor.
They also lost the battle on the boards, with just 26 rebounds to Polson’s 46.
Ronan attempted to counter Polson’s offensive spark, Louis Mohr, with a box-and-one defense. At first the Pirates just shifted their slash-and-kick to Tim Rausch, but eventually Mohr found his way to the bucket.
And Mohr didn’t miss much, hitting 13 of 16 field goal attempts for 28 points.
Tanner scored 12 and Hungerford netted 11 to help Ronan keep the first half close, trailing 28-25. But Mohr led Polson on a 12-5 run in the third and the Pirates cruised over the cold-shooting Chiefs 54-38 to earn a trip to state.
The loss was disappointing, but it was a good finish for a team that was too short, too young and too inexperienced all year long. The Chiefs showed a lot of heart, a lot of progress and a lot of hope for next year.
“There were a lot of emotions and a lot of ups and down. From coming in the last seed to people giving us no chance at all, (finishing third) was just simple desire to win,” coach Woll concluded. “A month ago we were 0-10. But those kids believe in themselves and understand their roles ... and that’s big.”
Northwestern A Divisional Tournament
Feb. 25-27, 2010
Ronan 56, Whitefish 41
Ronan15 10 19 12–56
Whitefish 11 9 13 8–41
RONAN - Jerod Tanner 16, Marcus Hungerford 6, Lucus Black 4, Justin Dusty Bull 12, Kevin Wroblewski 18.
WHITEFISH - Mac Roche 7, Austin Green 4, Gage Vasquez 8, Connor Silliker 6, Drew Galbraith 6, Kyler Blades 2, Cooper Olson 2.
Columbia Falls 64, Ronan 36
Ronan 9 10 8 9–36
C. Falls 13 16 15 20–64
RONAN - Jerod Tanner 8, Marcus Hungerford 3, Lucus Black 10, Kevin Wroblewski 5, John Buckendahl 2, Colten Cheff 3, Brady Oakland 3, Chris Clary 2.
C. FALLS - Kyle Howell 10, Austin Barth 13, Mitch Wassum 16, Kaleb Johnson 12, Michael Williams 2, Jacob Calderwood 2, Nick Emerson 5, Anthony Correa 2, Tim Spencer 2.
Ronan 57, Whitefish 51
Ronan 17 21 6 20–57
Whitefish 16 12 10 13–51
RONAN - Jerod Tanner 12, Marcus Hungerford 9, Lucus Black 8, Justin Dusty Bull 17, Kevin Wroblewski 3, Colten Cheff 4, Brady Oakland 3.
WHITEFISH - Christopher Forrest 2, Mac Roche 13, Kyler Blades 6, Austin Green 9, Gage Vasquez 11, Connor Silliker 10.