Senior Matt Johnson sets a hard pick on Rock Springs Tiger Dareck Mattinson to free his brother, sophomore Alek Johnson. Photo by Heather Gifford
GREEN RIVER — The casual fan would look at the four regional tournaments in the 4A classification — two for guys and two for girls — and likely point to the Casper Kelly Walsh Trojans’ regional tournament championship, as the team springing the biggest upsets, the surprise team of the postseason so far. After all, in the other three, the number-one seeds, the Gillette Camels, Sheridan Lady Broncs and Natrona County Fillies, all went in number-one and emerged that way.
Coaches, certain media members and fans who consider themselves more “students of the game,” however, have touted many positive factors with the Trojans basketball program, leading to statements such as, “Kelly Walsh could easily be a state title contender this year and, if they’re not, there’s no question they will be next year.”
KW entered the 4A West Conference regional tournament as a third-seed, finishing with a 6-4 conference mark, and 12-11 overall. In the Herald’s March 1 preview story, it was reported the Trojans had won three in a row before their Feb. 9, 37-50 loss in Evanston. The Trojans then closed strong, winning two of their final three, with the setback just a four-point loss to number two Riverton, whose only loss had come to No. 1 Gillette, before the Trojans pulled the upset over the Wolverines, who came in to the rematch with added incentive in the form of something to prove.
The Trojans, ranked fifth in the most recent WyoPreps.com and Coaches and Media poll, opened tournament play by dispatching the host Green River Wolves in the easy fashion, 73-36, on Thursday, Feb. 28. Next came back-to-back nine-point victories over the fourth-ranked Red Devils, 54-45, on March 1, and 57-48 over the second-ranked Wolverines on March 2, the two- and one-seeded teams, respectively, in the tournament.
Our preview mentioned the youthfulness of the KW team, but also highlighted their outstanding coaching, decent depth and good size. It did not account for their improved team speed, nor the players coming into their own, in terms of their roles, which facilitates a team jelling, and perhaps peaking at just the right time — during the Wyoming high school version of March Madness, the regional and state tournaments.
The Red Devils did come back to place third, with a 54-48 victory over Rock Springs. The Tigers ended the Natrona County Mustangs’ season with a 52-48 overtime win in the four- vs. five-seed game, before being pummeled by Riverton in the semifinal, 63-34.
In the 4A East Conference in Gillette, the Camels and Laramie Plainsmen, ranked first and second, were also the one- and two-seeds in the tournament, receiving first-round byes.
The number-five seed Cheyenne South Bison sent the four-seed Sheridan Broncs home, while the Cheyenne Central Indians ended the season for the Cheyenne East Thunderbirds in the three versus six game, 62-52. Laramie advanced to the 4A East tournament title game with a 63-58 victory over Central, while the host Camels were not very hospitable to former Red Devils head Coach Jim Shaffer’s South Bison, winning 72-33. South came back to upend Central, 62-56, in the third/fourth place game, with the Camels edging the Plainsmen, 60-55, for the tournament title.
The Bison, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time in their three-year history by defeating two higher-seeded teams, might now be considered the Cinderella story of Wyoming 4A Basketball, which simply adds to the allure of March Madness.
Kelly Walsh Trojans 54, Evanston Red Devils 45
The Red Devils’ average margin of victory over the Trojans during the conference season was a dozen points, winning 47-36 in Evanston on Jan. 19, and 50-37 on Feb. 9 in Casper. Less than a basket, on average, separates the 4A’s stingiest defense in Evanston, holding teams to 45.7 points, from the third best in Kelly Walsh, allowing opponents 47.6 per game. The difference is even less with the Trojans averaging 49.2, offensively, and the Red Devils 47.7 per game. Both teams focus on defense and are more deliberate in their offense.
The first quarter exemplified the above telltale statistical story, with Evanston leading 6-4 at the end of the first quarter.
The Red Devils did not appear in sync, though, and sank in the second quarter, reminiscent of their Feb. 22 home loss to Rock Springs, when the Tigers went on a 14-2 run, and Evanston never recovered.
Kelly Walsh limited the Red Devils to six points, and netted 17 in the second quarter, behind six from Beecher Strube and five from Kooper Adams, the two leading scorers for KW on the season. Drew Petrie connected on a fall-away three-point shot, and was inadvertently fouled by Evanston’s Colton Welling, resulting in a rare four-point play. The Trojans owned a lead of nine at the midpoint, 21-12.
Evanston bested Kelly Walsh by a bucket in the third quarter, 11-9, with Taylor Siemers and Brock Ehlers knocking down threes, but the Trojans still had a lead of seven, 30-23, entering the fourth quarter.
More than a couple of Kelly Walsh fans and one member of the Casper media claimed Strube, the six-foot, six-inch Trojans junior, had the game of his life. The rest of the 4A teams may now have concerns that this is just the beginning. Strube demonstrated teams will have to play him true from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of treys. The lengthy junior altered high-percentage shots for the Red Devils most of the game, and helped shut down Matt Johnson, with weak side defensive help and double teams.
Johnson, who surpassed Riverton’s Xavier Webb as the conference’s leading scorer in the final weekend of the regular season, had two first quarter buckets, and was then relegated to a pair of free-throws in both the second and fourth quarters, to finish with eight points, before fouling out with 1:32 remaining in regulation.
Strube had eight points at the half, but exploded for 13 in the fourth quarter. Strube did have a Johnson to duel with, in sophomore point guard Alek Johnson, who also netted 13 fourth quarter points, on his way to a career-high 16 as the only Red Devil to finish in double figures.
Freshman Brock Ehlers also hit a career-high with nine points, with many bench players seeing more time, as coach Roy Barker was searching for combinations to make up for the lack of offensive production ordinarily turned in by his senior-laden starters.
Both teams scored over 20 in the fourth quarter, with the Trojans hitting 17 of 20 free throws in the final eight minutes, outscoring Evanston by two, 24-22, en route to the win.
In addition to Alek Johnson’s 16, nine from Ehlers and eight from Matt Johnson, Jemini Leckie ended with six, Siemers scored four, and Kade Lym was limited to two fourth quarter free throws.
The Red Devils’ line was 12 field goals, three treys and 12 of 14 from the line with 11 turnovers, unofficially.
The Trojans finished with 11 field goals, four three-point baskets, and hit 20 of 25 free-throw attempts for 80 percent and also committed 11 turnovers.
Strube had game-high honors, scoring 21 points, which was also a career-high. Adams chipped in nine, with six from Durtsche, five from to Jacob Tapp, four each for Marcus Nolan and Petrie, three for Marco Sanchez and two from Ethan Applegate.
Strube also led the Trojans with 15 in the conference tournament title win over Riverton.
The Trojans will open with Cheyenne Central in state tournament matchups.
Evanston Red Devils 54,
Rock Springs Tigers 48
The Red Devils escaped with a 43-41 win in Rock Springs on Feb.1, with the Tigers retaliating for payback, earning a 55-46 victory in Evanston on Feb. 22.
The Tigers’ raced out to a 13-6 first quarter lead in a game witnessing four ties and 13 lead changes. Behind a nine-point quarter from Leckie, the Red Devils stormed back to make it a single-point differential at the half, with Rock Springs leading 26-25. Leckie led Evanston with 11 at recess, with the Tigers’ leading scorer, Jordan Rood, who finished third in the conference top 10 scorers, behind Johnson and Webb, pacing Rock Springs, also with 11.
Matt Johnson scored three third-quarter buckets, with Leckie contributing another five and Siemers hitting from downtown, as Evanston held a one-point lead at the completion of the third quarter, 39-38, scoring 14 to the Tigers’ 12.
Siemers led the Red Devils’ fourth quarter charge, accounting for eight of the team’s 15, which was five more than the Tigers could muster, giving the Red Devils the six-point 54-48 victory. But it was anybody’s game until the final minute.
Rood led Rock Springs with 16 points, fouling out with 2:47 left to play. Six-foot, five-inch senior Zach Legerski had his best game of the three against the Red Devils, pouring in 13 before fouling out with 17 seconds left. Junior Lennon Spence was the third Tiger in double digits, ending with 11. Dareck Mattinson was limited to four, Kellyn Goodrich hit the Tigers’ lone three-pointer, and six-foot, three-inch senior Braxton Rosette, who scored 10 and 12 in the first two meetings, had just a single point in the third meeting.
The Rock Springs line was 14 field goals, Goodrich’s trey, and 17 for 25 from the stripe for 68 percent, with 20 turnovers, unofficially.
Evanston connected on 12 field goals, three from beyond the arc, and converted 70 percent of their free throw attempts, shooting 21-30, while committing 19 turnovers.
Rock Springs will open with top-ranked Gillette, while Evanston will face a Laramie team who defeated them 48-39 on Dec. 1 in Cheyenne — without Kade Lym and Alek Johnson in the line-up — but earned an 11-point victory, 52-41, over an intact Red Devils team in Riverton on day three of the East versus West Tournament. Laramie finished 8-2 in the 4A East, with both losses at the hands of Gillette, and with a 1-1 postseason record — defeating Central and falling to Gillette, for the third time. The Plainsmen are 19-5 on the season. Their other two losses were to Greeley, Colo., 66-70, and Riverton, 52-66.
The Red Devils, also 1-1 in the postseason, are 15-10 for the year.
Tyler Loose ended up as the leading scorer for the Plainsmen, averaging 14.9 points per game, while dishing out 5.3 assists and coming up with 3.2 steals, to also lead his team. Six-foot, six-inch senior post player Sam Hainline is averaging 13.5, with senior Sam Feldman right behind, with 13 per game. The Plainsmen also have other players capable of scoring in Dominick Villareal and Abel Casas, who had 16 against Evanston in their first meeting.
The Plainsmen are third in the state in scoring, averaging 61.1 per game, and are the second best shooting team, behind Gillette, at 48 percent overall. Laramie does allow an average of 52 points per game.
The defending state champion Red Devils begin their quest for a repeat with a 1:30 p.m. scheduled tip-off on Thursday, March 7, as the three-seed from the West 4A faces the 4A East’s second place and second-seeded team, at Thunderbird Gymnasium on the Casper College campus. The winner will square off against the Cheyenne Central-Kelly Walsh victor in Friday’s semifinal.
Herald sports editor Mark Madia will have the call of all Red Devils and Lady Red Devils state tournament games on KEVA radio, and our Friday issue will feature a synopsis of each team.