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Mason Steele, right, of Rapid City Stevens, drives to the basket as Rapid City Central's Erik Keohane plays defense during a game Feb. 1.

There's no denying on their part, but the Rapid City Stevens Raiders feel a little fortunate that they are playing in the Class AA State Boys Basketball Tournament.

Despite easily being among the top eight teams in the state for much of the season, the Raiders were a play or two away from not getting into the final field. But senior Dylan Pourier hit two free throws in the final four seconds to help Stevens edge cross-town rival Rapid City Central 52-51 in the SoDak 16 battle.

So close, and yet almost so far away from still playing.

The No. 5 Raiders open the state tournament Thursday against No. 4 seed Brandon Valley at 7 p.m. in the Barnett Arena of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

The Raiders are pretty unanimous that they have to take advantage of how they got to the state tournament.

"We knew every day in practice, we knew we got to state for a reason, and now we just have to put that hard work all season in these games," said junior Daniel Vigoren.

Stevens coach Chris Stoebner said they didn't shy away in practice from the realism of almost not making it to state.

"Our message in the last eight or nine days has been to take advantage of the opportunity, don't waste it," he said. 'We could be at home right now. We have been given new life."

The win over the Cobblers brought the team closer together, according to Raider senior Joe Bennett.

"Looking at the Central players after the game and seeing how heartbroken they were, that could have been us. We're all fired up after that," he said.

The Raiders, 15-6, aren't new to re-focusing after losing leading scorer, senior Dawson Paulsen, to a knee injury early in the season.

Stoebner said losing Paulsen was a tough break, but they have had some time to pick up the slack.

"Obviously you never want that to happen, but it did give us some time to see the team grow," he said. "We struggled for a few weeks, and some of our guys stepped up and replaced that scoring by committee. I think we're playing our best basketball when we need to be — we didn't our last time out — but in a course of the last month or so, we are."

Pourier, a transfer from Douglas, leads the team in scoring at 16.5 points a game, while Vigoren is scoring 8.7 points per outing. Mason Steele, a 6-foot-7 senior, is averaging 7.7 points and 7.0 rebounds  a game.

Stoebner said confidence has been critical for the Raiders to get things going, something they might not have had at the beginning of the year.

"Over time they started developing that," he said. "Basketball is such a huge game of confidence. I think Mason Steele's confidence has really helped us. If you went from beginning to end, he might be one of our most improved players. He's cleaning the glass. We're not a very big team, so we're really depending on him to clean the glass.

"Daniel Vigoren has been big because he is now starting to score for us. He has always distributed as our point guard, but we needed some more scoring. We know teams will key on Dylan, so he has transformed his game for us."

Brandon Valley is 16-5 and thumped Brookings 73-47 in the SoDak 16. Evan Talcott leads the Lynx in scoring at 16 points  a game, grabbing 6.1 rebounds. Carter Olthoff is scoring 14.7 points  a game and Jackson Hilton 11.8 per game.

Stevens and Brandon Valley opened the season with the Raiders pulling out the 63-57 win in Rapid City.

 "We're not going to look much at that first game, and I can't imagine Brandon will either," Stoebner said. "We've had to find a new identity a little bit. Brandon is as of a complete team as anybody in the state. They have developed over the year too."

While all eight teams have talent, Stoebner said it might be a little top heavy with the top four teams as favorites.

"Come tournament time, if you can put together three good games, it is just  matter of who is playing with confidence and who is executing," he said. "You have to have a three-game run and I would like to think we are capable of that. But we're going to have to play our best basketball to do that."

Bennett said the Raiders will have to execute on offense to be successful.

"We have some really good shooters across the roster, so we're going to have to hit shots. " Bennett said. "On the other side of the ball, we're smaller than almost every single team out here, so we really have to step up on the defensive end."

The winner will play the Sioux Falls Lincoln-Harrisburg winner in Friday night's semifinals.

"We just have to all play together and come together as a brotherhood, keep our heads high and just have fun, and do what we usually do," Vigoren said.

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Sports Editor

Sports reporter for the Rapid City Journal.