The excitement surrounding the Hot Springs boys' basketball team's first appearance in the state tournament since 1945 hasn't worn off since the Bison clinched its berth with a 54-41 win over Winner in the SoDak 16 March 5.
But now, there is a game to play. No. 5 seed Hot Springs' opponent in the first round is no easy task, either.
The 20-3 Bison will open the tournament against the No. 4 seeded Pine Ridge Thorpes, who sit at 18-3.
The Thorpes advanced to the state tournament with a 71-44 win over Bon Homme in the SoDak 16.
"It’s been amazing. I can’t describe it. After we won I was speechless," Pine Ridge coach Casey Means said. "It all came together how it was supposed to, they bought into what I wanted to do. These boys make everything easier. It’s like I have some coaches on the floor, there’s nothing they can’t do. I’m proud of them, but we’re not done. We’re really hungry, we want a banner."
And now that the Bison have gotten over the high of making their first state tournament in decades, they have also turned their focus to the task at hand.
"Obviously we want to win it like everyone else, there’s a lot of moving pieces that have to come together in order for that to happen," Hot Springs coach Aaron Noteboom said. "Our focus is to come in and do what we’ve been doing all year and let the chips fall where they may."
Neither team will be in trouble offensively in the matchup.
The Bison have four players who average double figures in scoring, with Matt Norton leading the way with 13 points per game, Kelton Harris has 12, Alex Bilbruck averages 11 and Thane Lockhart averages 10.
Not far behind them is the other starter, Morgan Harkless, who averages 8.0 points a game.
"We’re pretty balanced ... it’s been good for us because I think it makes us difficult to game plan for and difficult to guard," Noteboom said. "I think anytime you have five guys on the floor it makes you a dangerous basketball team."
The Thorpes pack their own firepower, with Halin Bad Bear leading the way at 19.9 points per game and Corey Brown averaging 11.4.
It isn't just the scoring that concerns Noteboom, Pine Ridge has nine seniors on its squad.
"Pine Ridge is a really good basketball team that is pretty experienced. We’re going to have to come out and play our best basketball on the defensive end of the floor," he said. "They have a lot of guys that can put it in the hoop, so we’re going to try to limit those guys from getting to their spots and do things they’re comfortable doing."
Experience is also a trait Hot Springs has, with a starting five that has four seniors and a junior.
It's not something Means plans to take lightly.
"I know they’ve played a long time together; they have good chemistry," Means said. "We’re not overlooking anyone, we just want to make sure we’re ready to play, bring energy, bring intensity and we’re ready to lock horns."
Tip-off between Pine Ridge and Hot Springs is 6 p.m. mountain time Thursday.
STM boys ready for state
The tournament's No. 3 seed, St. Thomas More, will go into state battle tested.
STM has played a tough schedule that included neutral site games against the tournament's top two seeds, Tea Area and Sioux Falls Christian.
Now, it faces a new challenge with No. 6 seed Lennox, which is 18-5 on the season.
"We’ve had a tough schedule, we’ve played a lot of good teams. Lennox is very, very good. It was a tough draw for us. We just have to settle in and play, make the most of it," STM coach Dave Hollenbeck said. "They’re very athletic, the defend real well, they plug up the lane and they shoot the ball real well. It’s probably one of the most well-rounded teams we’ll play from their top starter to their bottom starter, they’re all good. It’s hard to find mismatches on them."
The 18-4 Cavaliers are hoping experience in those big games will help them focus on the task at hand.
"The biggest thing the guys have to understand is we’ve done quite a bit of preparation," Hollenbeck said. "We want to make sure they’re comfortable, relaxed, and I’m sure once the preparation period is over and we’re getting ready for the game there will be a lot of jitters. But once the ball is tipped, you know the guys will settle in and we hope we can play like it’s just another game."
Caden Casey leads the team this season with 16.9 points per game, but is followed closely by Ryder Kirsch at 16.6. Ryan Wojcik also is averaging 10.1 per game.
It won't just be the offense that is averaging 66.9 points per game, or the defense that is only allowing 46.7 points per game. Hollenbeck said the Cavaliers go to Sioux Falls with expectations that he thinks the program has earned.
"There’s history behind it. We feel we have a pretty good tradition here and our expectations are high," he said. "In Class A it’s tough to get to a state tournament, so we’re appreciative. We value the opportunity to play for our school, community and West River. It’s important that we go down there and compete, win or lose we need to compete well."
The Cavs and the Orioles tip-off at 6 p.m. from Sioux Falls Arena.