Red Cloud did what any team at the brink of the state tournament would do if it was struggling offensively, crank up the defense to jump-start its offense.
The Crusaders shook off a miserable first quarter by harassing Hot Springs at every turn in the second quarter, which sparked their offense in an easy 59-34 win over Bison in the District 15A championship game Thursday at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.
Reserve Duran Richards scored a game-high 14 points, Kobe O’Rourke added 10 points and seven rebounds and Dominic Pilcher chipped in eight points for Red Cloud. The Crusaders will face Spearfish, a 41-36 winner over St. Thomas More, in the Region 8A championship Tuesday for a berth in the state tournament.
“(Winning) the district championship feels good,” Red Cloud head coach Christian McGhee said. “We definitely can’t start out like that on Tuesday, no matter who we play. The boys came out pretty slow, but they were fired up after that and got the win, and that’s the most important thing.”
Slow would be the understatement of the night as Red Cloud scored just one point and actually trailed Hot Springs 6-1 after the first eight minutes.
The Crusaders, however, woke up in the next frame, thanks to their opportunistic defense. A three-point play from Richards helped cut the lead to 10-9 before Red Cloud exploded.
The Crusaders scored nine points resulting from four consecutive steals, getting two layups from Richards and a three-point play by Falcon Albers.
“My job is to come in and help my team and get the work done,” Richards said. “It could have been my last game, but I didn’t want it to be.”
His teammates made sure it was not. Two more baskets from Red Cloud capped a 13-0 run that put it ahead 22-10.
“I could have called a timeout in the first quarter, but I knew we’d be fine. I didn’t know that we’d have a one point quarter and then have a 25-point quarter in the second quarter, but I knew we’d be OK,” McGhee said. “I talked to them before the second quarter, told them to buckle down on defense, and that’s where we score, is off our defense.”
Hot Springs hit a few free throws to make it 26-13 at halftime, but the damage was already done. The Crusaders forced nine of the 23 Hot Springs turnovers in the second and outscored the Bison 25-7 in the quarter.
“Like I keep telling them, we need someone to step up when things aren’t going right,” McGhee said. “Duran did it tonight, and that’s exactly what we need from one of our best players. That’s what started our run, was him getting stops and getting steals and layups. I was proud of him the way he stepped up.”
Red Cloud put the game away at the start of the third, opening with an 11-0 run, with six coming from Pilcher. Hot Springs, which was led by Hunter Pulscher with eight points, would get no closer than 17 the rest of the way.