Playing in front of a sold-out crowd inside the St. Joseph-Ogden High School gymnasium, Ty Pence let out a loud yell.
The freshman forward on the SJO boys’ basketball team had just hit a three-pointer, giving the Spartans a lead midway through the first half of the Class 2A regional championship game between SJO and Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin on Feb. 28.
But the good vibes didn’t last all night, with the fourth-seeded Spartans coming up on the wrong end of the scoreboard with a 38-28 loss to top-seeded and undefeated BHRA.
The setback concluded the season for the Spartans, who finished 23-9 and won the Illini Prairie Conference regular-season title with an 8-1 mark in league games.
“I’m proud of what they did,” SJO second-year coach Kiel Duval said. “They accomplished a lot. Even though you come up short against a really good team, they were able to do so many good things throughout the year. There are so many things to be proud of.”
SJO led 19-14 at halftime against BHRA on the strength of outside shooting from Pence and senior guard Chance Izard, but the Spartans only managed nine points after halftime against BHRA’s stingy zone defense.
Pence led the Spartans with 14 points and Izard added 11 points, with senior guard Payton Grimsley contributing SJO’s three other points when Grimsley converted a traditional three-point play late in the third quarter to put the Spartans ahead 24-22. But Drew Reifsteck ended the third quarter with a three-pointer just before the buzzer, putting BHRA ahead 25-24. SJO never led again.
“In the first half, when you’re hitting shots, it’s a little different,” Duval said. “But in the second half, when you’re not hitting shots, you’ve got to adjust. We didn’t do a great job adjusting, and I didn’t do a great job adjusting. It’s just what it comes down to.”
Duval was pleased with SJO’s defense and ability to limit BHRA’s offensive rebounding during the first half.
“We were able to contain the dribble, and one of the big things we went into halftime with is we turned the ball over six times, but they didn’t have any offensive rebounds in the first half,” Duval said. “That’s where they kind of got the lead in the second half is they got a couple offensive rebounds. I thought if we could have just continued that, we may have stayed in the game a little better.”
Pence and Izard combined on five three-pointers during the first half, but couldn’t connect on any after halftime. Duval credited BHRA’s defensive adjustments in the second half. SJO only shot 10 of 37 (27 percent) from the field for the game.
“They were able to push us to the outside, so we were kind of settling for outside shots when really, we should have been trying to get into the middle of that zone and see if we could attack or try and penetrate gaps,” Duval said. “We just never did that, but it’s a credit to them. They did a good job of cutting down driving lanes and taking away the skip passes. That was one thing we struggled with.”
Along with Izard and Grimsley, SJO will lose guards Dade Allinger, Payton Cain, Jordan Kelly and Brayden Weaver, forward Luke Renfrew and center Braydon Rupert off this year’s team because of graduation.
It’s a group, though, that Duval will have a lasting impression of.
“I’m proud of them. I’m proud of everything they did,” he said. “They didn’t have to commit the way they did. They didn’t have to put it all out there the way they did, but they did. They wanted this season to be special. They talked about how much they cared about each other and how important this was to them. They wanted to play in this game and this environment.”