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Final comeback attempt falls short

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Nicholas Ortiz shoots for three.Nicholas Ortiz shoots for three.

By Brian Besch
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The 2023-24 season came to an end Tuesday in Madisonville for Big Sandy basketball, dropping the regional quarterfinal playoff contest to Thrall 62-58.

After a nervous start from both teams, both showed an ability to put the ball in the hoop consistently in the first quarter. Big Sandy gave up a few inches in height, and Thrall took advantage by winning the rebounding battle.

“First of all, I thought that Thrall played great,” Big Sandy coach Kevin Foster said. “They made more shots than we did and we couldn’t get stops and rebounds throughout the game. We turned the ball over some in the first half. It comes down to making shots and they out-shot us. For the most part they out-rebounded us tonight. I was proud of the kids the way we battled back, but it just seems like we never could catch a break or get any momentum. They were just a little better than us tonight. I credit their defense too. They really made Javen (Criswell) work for everything. He had some threes late when I moved him to the three spot, where he was able to get some clean looks.”

A full-court press in the second quarter gave Big Sandy more trouble than they wanted to handle. Turnovers began and so did the gap on the scoreboard. Thrall led by as much as 15 in the period, but the ‘Cats slimmed that to a 36-26 mark at the half. There was a lot of work to do, but they withstood the Tigers’ best shot through a two quarters. Thrall missed very little from long range, connecting on six 3-pointers. It would have been difficult to continue that hot start.

“We knew going in that was something they did,” Foster said of the press. “Usually, they are a half-court team, but I thought we were careless. Instead of attacking them and getting by them, we had a few lazy passes and just kind of nonchalant with the ball. We talked about it at halftime, and we really only gave up three offensive rebounds in the first half, but every time we did it led to six points for them. I know on our turnovers that it led to at least four points for them, so that was our deficit right there. It wasn’t one thing during this game.”

Thrall’s offense kept Big Sandy from going on any kind of run in the third. Needing to cut into the lead, the Wildcats could not get consecutive baskets, and the Tiger offense showed an ability to score from all over the court.

Down by double digits with just a few minutes remaining, Big Sandy began a furious comeback. Challenging every pass in every dribble, the Wildcats got turnovers and the buckets they needed to bring it within one, but that would be as close as they would get.

“We had the momentum there at the end, we just needed a little bit more time I think,” the coach said. “The only thing we really did different was go full-court man. We got turnover after turnover, but too many times, we weren’t able to capitalize on them. We had just said in the time out that if we score (when the game was a one-point difference), we are getting back. We didn’t transition defense good enough and (Thrall’s Payton Gillmore) slipped back. That is on all of us, really. We knew that he liked to leak out a lot. I think after that shot, he was already leaking out. That is just one play of many throughout the course of the game.”

For Thrall, Gillmore led with 19 points, Dawson Meiske had 16 and Breken Proctor 11. Big Sandy’s Tavian Battise was the top scorer with 22, Criswell had 15 and Nick Ortiz 12.

The Wildcats will have a much different look in the 2024-25 season. Seniors graduating this year include Ortiz, Battise, Jackson Trevino and Criswell.

“You look at accomplishments and some of those guys were on our regional semifinal team their freshman year,” Foster said of his seniors. “There were three years in the regional quarterfinals. A lot of kids would love to have that just one year. We are so fortunate and blessed how we have been able to have those kind of teams and make these kind of runs. It hurts when it ends. I told the kids that it should hurt, that means that it means something to you. The kids were upset, but I told them that the thing I will remember about this group is that it kind of looked like it was over for us. We battled back like we have all year. We didn’t win it and I know it hurts, but we can look back and say that we had a chance to make a game out of it.”

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