For Michael Simmons, it was the game his team had to have.
And while Rocky Mountain’s 45-43 win over the Thermopolis Bobcats in Thermop Friday night was closer than fans and coaches would have preferred, it was a road conference win and, with Lovell losing at Greybull the same night, vaulted the Grizzlies into a tie for first place in the Five Rivers Conference standings with a 4-1 record.
“It was a conference win we needed to get,” Simmons said. “We talked about it all week.”
Thinking sequentially, however, the most important thing for Simmons was that the win all but guarantees that the Grizz won’t have to play a regional play-in game – a so-called pigtail game – on Monday, Feb. 20.
The next step would be to work for a higher finish in the standings, with the Grizz facing key conference games this weekend against Greybull and Riverside.
Friday’s game was close from start to finish, Simmons said, noting that, while Thermop was without leading scorer Tanner Abbott, the Bobcats played good team ball.
“It was on their floor and it was noisy,” Simmons said. “They played well. Coach (Ernie) Mecca did a good job. They were scrappy and were getting on the floor for loose balls, all the things a team trying to get its first conference win would do.
“There would be a little run here and there, but it was always single digits. It was just a physical game, slower than we would have liked. The stats were even all across the board. One could argue that three-pointers were the difference in the game.”
The Grizzlies hit five treys in the game, Thermop two.
“We never got into a great rotation,” Simmons said. “Our starting five played a lot of minutes. That’s the way it worked out because it was so close.”
Rocky led 11-8 after the first quarter, 21-19 at halftime and 32-29 after three. Thermop edged the Grizz 14-13 in the fourth, and Derik Romero and Bryce Ward hit key treys in the final period to help hold off the Bobcats.
Kirby Winland led the Grizzlies with 13 points, and Ward finished with 12 points, hitting three of nine shots from beyond the arc in the process. Romero added 10 points. Michael Bernhisel led the team with nine rebounds, and Winland grabbed eight caroms, Ward six and Shane Wocicki and Romero five each. Winland had six blocked shots, Romero four assists and three steals.
The box score:
Michael Bernhisel 2 0-1 5, Shane Wocicki 0 0-0 0, Joey Jewell 1 2-2 4, Bill Despain 0 0-0 0, Kirby Winland 5 3-6 13, Derik Romero 4 1-1 10, Cannon Simmons 0 1-2 1, Bryce Ward 4 1-2 12. Totals 16 8-14 45.
S. Thomas 1 1-2 4, E. Stromsuag 3 0-0 6, M. King 2 2-3 6, K. Conner 5 2-4 13, L. Schmidt 2 2-4 6, H. Chism 3 2-2 8. Totals 16 9-15 43.
Rocky 11 10 11 13 – 45
Therm 8 11 10 14 – 43
Three-point field goals – Ward 3, Bernhisel 1, Romero 1; Thomas 1, Conner 1. Fouled out – none. Total fouls – Rocky 15, Thermop 16.
Loss to TR
The Grizzlies returned home Saturday for a non-conference game against the Tongue River Eagles, who Simmons said are now fully healthy and playing much better than earlier in the season. The visitors from Dayton-Ranchester got off to a strong start and beat the Grizzlies 64-55.
“Coach (Larry) Moser told me this was one of the first weekends they’re back with everybody healthy,” Simmons said. “They’re at full strength. They beat Greybull recently and they’re playing well. They passed the ball well. They’re not big, but they’re all athletic and can get up and down the floor. They don’t make a lot of mistakes.”
The Eagles came out shooting very well, Simmons said, and despite two three-pointers and seven points from Romero, Tongue River outscored the Grizz 21-11 in the first quarter. Keenan Gross scored 8 points for TR, one of six players who scored for the Eagles.
TR gradually built the lead to 36-23 at halftime and 50-36 after three. Simmons said TR would answer each Rocky run and even led by 18 early in the fourth before the Grizzlies started chipping into the lead thanks to strong play from the reserves. Rocky outscored Tongue River 19-14 in the fourth quarter.
“They shot the ball extremely well for being on the road,” Simmons said, adding that the Grizzlies’ fourth-quarter comeback was “good for some of our younger guys.”
Freshman Bill Despain finished with 12 points, Romero 11, Ward 8, Joey Jewell 7 and Winland 6. Ward led the team with seven rebounds, Bernhisel had six assists and Winland blocked five shots.
Stellar senior Stephen Yellowtail poured in 19 points for TR, Tanner Dockery 15.
The box score:
TONGUE RIVER (64)
Jacob Moore 1 1-4 3, Kyle McGaugh 0 0-2 0, Cody Jolovich 1 2-2 4, Stephen Yellowtail 8 2-2 19, Matt Yellowtail 4 0-0 10, Tanner Dockery 4 5-6 15, Keenan Gross 5 1-2 12, Joel Esteves 0 0-1 0, W. Main 0 1-2 1, Austin Bolin 0 0-2 0. Totals 23 12-23 64.
Xavier Mangus 1 0-0 2, Michael Bernhisel 2 0-1 4, Shane Wocicki 1 3-3 5, Joey Jewell 3 1-2 7, Bill Despain 5 0-0 12, Kirby Winland 3 0-0 6, Derik Romero 4 1-2 11, Cannon Simmons 0 0-0 0, Bryce Ward 3 1-2 8. Totals 22 6-10 55.
T. River 21 15 14 14 – 64
Rocky 11 12 13 19 – 55
Three-point field goals – Dockery 2, M. Yellowtail 2, S. Yellowtail 1, Gross 1; Despain 2, Romero 2, Ward 1. Fouled out – none. Total fouls – TR 12, Rocky 21.
The Grizzlies will play a pair of critical conference games this weekend, hosting Greybull (5-2 in conference) Friday night and traveling to Basin Saturday to meet Riverside (1-4).
The Grizzlies played well in a 54-50 win in Greybull on Jan. 19, and Simmons said the Buffs will come loaded for bear.
“We played a great game in Greybull, and I don’t know who the pressure’s on now,” Simmons said. “It was them in January, and now a little bit of pressure shifts back to us.
“You can argue who’s the underdog, but it’s a conference game and we’re playing for second place in the conference. We can secure second place, that would set us up to play Lovell for first place. It’s first things first.”
Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. (JVs at 4) in Cowley.
Saturday, the Grizz play another important game in Basin against the Riverside Rebels. The Grizz beat the Rebs 48-39 in Cowley on Jan. 21, but Simmons said the Rebels are playing well, are always tough at home and give the Grizz a huge match-up problem inside in the form of big Brynnt Wood.
Riverside is switching the varsity games for this one, so Saturday’s schedule features JV games at 12 (boys) and 1:30 (girls), the boys varsity at 3 p.m. and the girls varsity at 4:30.
By David Peck