BUTTE — Box Elder blew teams out all year. Leading by one point at halftime of Saturday night's State C championship game might have been a bit unsettling.
But the Bears, in typical run-and-gun fashion, opened it up in the second half and beat Westby-Grenora 74-54 to win a long awaited title.
Box Elder finished a perfect season at 26-0 as their legion of fans cascaded chants of “We’re No. 1” from the Civic Center stands. And the Bears dog-piled near midcourt in celebration of their first championship since 1990.
“We started out slow. The emotions were high,” said Randall Gardipee, who scored 19 of his game-high 28 points in the second half. “We’ve never been in the state title game before. But with the crowd behind us we knew we were going to come out (in the second half) running.”
The victory capped a three-year journey to No. 1, which saw the Bears achieve their goal of winning district, divisional and state tournaments in succession in the same season.
“Hard work,” Gardipee said. “Those were a long three years, but we got here and now we’re state champs.”
In 25 previous games, the Bears had an average margin of victory of roughly 30 points. They won by differences of 43, 59 and 67 during the season. They averaged nearly 80 points every time out.
But Westby-Grenora, on the strength of hot shooting by Walker Wilson and Cooper Olson, led by as many as five points in the second quarter. Box Elder labored to leave the floor at halftime up by one, 30-29.
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“We went into halftime, and I was having fun. It’s fun to be in the championship game,” said Bears third-year coach Jeremy MacDonald. “I told the guys, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to win or lose, but it’s a great experience to be a part of this.’
“One of our keys was to stay mentally focused and stay aggressive on offense. We know our pressure can get to teams and that’s what we wanted to do in the second half.”
The run started at 5:39 of the third quarter on an inside basket by Gardipee. Lonni Plain Bull Jr. soon scored, and Brandon The Boy followed with a 3.
Gardipee was then fouled on a spinning layup for a three-point play, which was before Jerrod Four Colors’ basket under the hoop on a deep pass the length of the court.
Suddenly, the Bears were up 10 at the end of the third. And the lead grew in the fourth.
“I think we only shot 32 percent in the second half. That was kind of tough,” said Westby-Grenora coach Chad Solberg, whose team knocked off unbeaten Superior a night earlier in the semifinals. “It got away from us in the third quarter. We had to play a really good game to win it, and we did for about 2½ quarters.”
Olson had 19 to lead the Thunder. Wilson added 15. It marked the second straight championship-game loss for the Thunder. But Solberg commended his team for peaking at tournament time, especially a season after graduating three key players.
Westby-Grenora finished the season 22-5.