It's been the battle of the hammer and the nail all season in girls' Class A basketball, and both the hammer and the nail are only 57 miles apart.
All season Belle Fourche and St. Thomas More have been on a collision course, with both teams being ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the South Dakota Prep Media Poll.
The teams are close in proximity but not in history. STM, 19-3, has won the last four state titles. Belle Fourche, 21-1, hasn't won a title since 1995, and hasn't made the state tournament since 2000.
When the two teams met in Belle Fourche Jan. 30, the history didn't matter. In a hard fought, playoff atmosphere the Broncs came out on top 43-42.
If there is to be a rematch, both teams will have a lot of work to do. That work begins Thursday at 11 a.m. mountain time.
The Broncs have been knocking on the door for the last three years, and this year they broke the door down.
After an 18-year drought in between state tournament appearances, Belle Fourche won its first 18 games of the season. When it topped Wagner 50-38 in the Round of 16, it clinched the No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
It was just one item on a list of goals that the senior-led team made at the start of the season.
"With this group of girls, the last couple of years they've been successful we knew we would have a shot at the Round of 16," Belle Fourche coach Bill Burr said. "I didn't expect the record, we had some big wins, double overtime with Madison, Spearfish is always a tough doubleheader, obviously STM, so I didn't expect us to be 20-1, but we thought we’d be competitive."
The list started with winning the Black Hills Conference, then going to the Round of 16. From there, the next goal was going to state.
The reason the win against STM was special, even though the game was in January, was that it had been on the senior's list for a long time.
It's a group of eight players this year, most of whom have been playing with together since third grade.
One of those seniors is Mandee Williamson, who is leading the Broncs in scoring (13.6 points per game) and rebounding (6.3 rebounds per game).
Burr said even the juniors the Broncs have add to the depth.
"We have three juniors who could start for any other team out there," he said. "That's what makes us so good, we can go so deep on our bench."
The Broncs open the tournament with No. 8 seed Madison, which Belle Fourche beat Dec. 29 in double overtime 64-60. Whoever the Broncs play will have to score more than others have this season.
Belle Fourche is giving up 34.5 points per game on the defensive end.
"Everyone kind of overlooks that part of us, but that's what we work on," Burr said. "Our core girls, we’re not basketball athletes, we’re overall athletes. We have to rely on each other, one thing we rely on is our defense. We create turnovers that create offense, that's how we play."
It's been a long time since Belle Fourche has been to the state tournament, and even longer since its won one. Still, when the Broncs made a goal list at the start of the season they considered what would happen if they made the state tournament.
Now, they'll get the chance to achieve what they wanted to at the start of the season.
"One of the goals was to get to state and they wrote down not just get there, but to make an impact," Burr said. "The eight teams that are there are super great. Whoever is playing the best ball will get the victory. I can see any of the eight teams winning it."
St. Thomas More
Some teams enter the season with a target on its back. That would be an understatement for STM.
The Cavaliers have won the last four state titles, including an undefeated season last year. A state title has become an expectation when the basketball season starts.
STM had another spectacular regular season. At 19-3, the Cavs are the No. 2 seed and will face Vermillion in the first round, Thursday at 5 p.m.
Still, the dominance of last season isn't quite the same. The Cavs winning streak of 48 games was snapped Jan. 12 on the road to West Central.
STM coach Brandon Kandolin said he knows his team hasn't fallen off, he just thinks the rest of the teams in the class have caught up to the Cavs.
"It’s not that we’ve gotten any worse, I think it's that the other teams have caught up to us," he said. "We talk about it, these other teams have gotten better. I see other teams do things we like to do, and I see some teams running our plays, so its going to be a matter of are you going to be the ones who go out there and execute?"
Kandolin admitted there's pressure on the Cavs, but he thinks that's natural when the standard has been set as high as it has.
"I think there’s starting to be some pressure. I don't know how you wouldn’t feel pressure," he said. "There's an expectation and I think anyone’s mindset would be, you don't want to be on the team that stops the streak."
The numbers indicate that this team has a good chance as any to keep the streak alive. A core group of seniors have been a large part of the Cavalier lore for their entire careers, and they've also put up solid numbers.
Aislinn Duffy leads the team with 13.8 ppg and 7.0 rpg, Jayden Bies is scoring 11.8 ppg and Klaire Kirsch is averaging 9.3 ppg. Kayla Jacobson runs the floor at the point guard position and Tasha Swedlund has been big off the bench.
They're all also not new to the bright lights of the state tournament. The Cavs have also made a point to travel across the state and take on the toughest challengers in the state during the regular season.
"With our schedule, we play all over the state. It’s not even a thought anymore," Kandolin said. "It’s still a basketball court with 10 foot rims and we know we have to do certain things to execute. If we do those things we’ll be in a good position to win."
Kandolin was also quick to complement the field, saying he thinks if the tournament field was larger, 10-12 teams would be in consideration for a state title.
But his team still has a lot of qualities that could remind the field that it has won the last four state titles.
"I think the strengths are that we’re a fairly versatile team. We can score from the outside and the inside and that makes it tough for other teams to match up sometimes. I think the skill set is very solid overall," he said. "The next strong thing is that this team has a lot of experience, their defense has been solid so far."