One of the chief axioms in sports is that defense wins championships, and that was certainly the case with the Lovell Bulldogs Saturday as they shut down the Lusk Tigers 46-35 to win the state basketball championship at the Casper Events Center.
It was Lovell’s ninth boys basketball title and the first since 2003.
Lusk came into the title game on a roll. The Tigers (23-4) dispatched defending champion and second-ranked Wyoming Indian in the first round Thursday, 51-40, and overpowered East Regional champion and third-ranked Big Horn 70-58 in Friday night’s semifinal.
But defense won the day for Lovell. Lusk had scored 70 points the night before against Big Horn. The Tigers scored 35 Saturday. They had four players in double figures against Big Horn, one against the Bulldogs.
Some fans and members of the media lamented the lack of a Lovell-Wyoming Indian finale, but Lovell coach Brian May said the Tigers were legit.
“When Lusk goes down and beats Wyoming Indian and then beats Big Horn you feel Lusk is the team you want to play,” May said. “They beat quality opponents and were deserving of being in the championship game.”
May said the Bulldogs knew going into the game that the Tigers were quick and had excellent shooters. But May and fellow coaches RJ May and Craig Lundberg also knew that the Tigers hadn’t seen a defensive team the likes of Lovell.
“We felt Lusk hadn’t seen the type of defense we were capable of playing, and we knew we would make it difficult for them to score,” May said.
Early in the game it was Lovell’s inside power versus Lusk’s jump shooting. A Cody Savage bucket was answered by a jumper off a screen by Lusk guard Hunter Dockery, and after Austin Ellis scored on a reverse layup, Dockery drained a three-pointer to give the Tigers a 5-4 lead.
Using a tough man-to-man defense, the Bulldogs only allowed one basket and three points the rest of the quarter while scoring 8 on a Ryan Clark jump shot, a transition bank shot by Dylan Hultgren, two free throws by Hultgren and a corner jumper by Hultgren. Lovell led 12-8 after one.
“We felt that a man would be our best defense if we would communicate on screens to allow us to get through them,” May said. “We also wanted to anticipate the screens coming so when the offensive player would be there to catch (the ball) we would be there to contest the shot.
“Lusk runs a flex and likes that down screen. The hold it and get a quick curl off the screen for a jump shot, or they catch and penetrate. The thing I liked was that we were squaring up on the offensive player and not allowing easy penetration to the basket.”
Another huge key, May said, was rebounding. On most possessions the Tigers got only one shot and then the Bulldogs were hurrying to the other end.
Lusk tied the score at 12 and 14 in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs finished the first half with a 9-2 run led by Ellis, who crashed the offensive boards for follow shots.
“They were playing a sagging 1-3-1,” May said. “They wanted us to shoot more from the perimeter than use our size advantage. I thought in the first quarter we were settling too much for the outside shot. You have to penetrate and kick and look for the high post. The high post has to make good decisions.
“There’s a weakness in the 1-3-1 that we did a good job working on, and that’s giving up offensive rebounds. It’s kind of hard to box out in something like that.”
Lusk hung tough in the third quarter, outscoring Lovell 11-9 despite 4 points each by Savage and Hultgren. Lovell still led by five points at the quarter break, 32-27.
The Bulldogs were never really threatened in the fourth quarter. The five seniors made sure of it. Savage started the quarter with buckets on a drive and a spin move, and after Lusk free throws Ellis scored on a fast break for a 38-29 Lovell lead. An 8-2 run later in the quarter that included a Clark jumper, a Savage bank shot, a Hultgren basket inside and free throws by Kade Nicholls put the Bulldogs up 46-33 under a minute to play before a late Lusk basket made the final score 46-35.
Savage finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, Hultgren 12 points and five assists and Ellis 10 points and 14 rebounds. Clark added 4 points, Nicholls 3. The Bulldogs shot 53 percent from two-point range but were 0-7 from behind the three-point line.
The win put the finishing touches on a 25-1 season for the Bulldogs that included three wins over Wyoming Indian and four wins over Class 3A opponents. May said it all boiled down to teamwork and unselfish play.
“One of the biggest things was the team unity and the accepting of roles,” he said. “The kids who don’t get recognition are the kids in practice battling your senior group. The kids off the bench don’t get enough recognition for the things they do in practice to help us prepare for the game.
“We had not only our 12 varsity kids but four of five others stay for the extra practices just to help us prepare (for tournaments). Those are the types of things they just don’t get enough credit for.”
The win was the final game for seniors Savage, Clark, Ellis, Hulgren and Nicholls.
“We had extremely positive, quality leadership from our seniors,” May said. “All of them were coachable, hard-working, goal-oriented kids.”
The box score:
Chase Tippetts 0 0-0 0, Brandon Wolvington 0 0-0 0, Dylan Hultgren 4 4-4 12, Kade Nicholls 0 3-4 3, Seth Kite 0 0-0 0, Austin Ellis 4 2-3 10, Ryan Clark 2 0-2 4, Cody Savage 8 1-2 17. Totals 18 10-15 46.
Matthew VandeBossche 0 0-0 0, Travis Smith 3 3-6 9, Denton Shaw 0 0-0 0, Hunter Dockery 6 0-0 13, Craig Christianson 0 1-2 1, Jordan Jackson 0 0-0 0, Kevin Christianson 3 0-0 6, Colter Larson 0 0-0 0, Derick VandeBossche 3 0-0 6. Totals 15 4-8 35.
Lovell 12 11 9 14 – 46
Lusk 8 8 11 8 – 35
Three-point field goals – Dockery 1. Fouled out – none. Total fouls – Lovell 12, Lusk 13.
By David Peck