JACKSON – Evanston (19-4) has not collected many losses throughout the season. However, the season has been littered with close calls. Many of those have come by way of poor fourth quarters that allowed opponents to climb back into games.
That was not the case at the 4A West regional tournament this weekend. Evanston defeated Natrona County 68-53 in the semifinals on Friday and Rock Springs 77-58 in Saturday’s championship. Evanston enters this week’s 4A state tournament in Casper as the top seed from the Western Conference.
In both games, Evanston closed out in big ways.
Evanston outscored Natrona 28-12 in the fourth quarter and closed out Rock Springs with a 26-point fourth, holding the Tigers to just 12.
“(Closing out games) is a piece of our offense that we’ve struggled with that hopefully we’re putting together at the right time,” Evanston head coach Lex Cornia said on Friday after the win over Natrona. “I didn’t think we would have any double-digit wins in these last two weeks, so they proved me wrong.”
The marked improvement in late-game situations was a focus for Evanston in the days leading up to regionals. Coach Cornia implemented a new offensive set designed to run out the clock. He then had five offensive players run the drill against eight defenders.
Natrona County ran neck-and-neck with Evanston for three quarters on Friday, before losing steam in the final eight minutes. Junior Carson Johnson led the way for Natrona with seven points in the opening two quarters and had his team down just one point, 26-25, at halftime.
Junior Evanston post Lance Evans was scoreless in the first half, but had six of his 12 points in the third quarter and helped keep the Red Devils’ offense afloat. Evanston and Natrona were still tight heading into the fourth quarter, with Evanston ahead 40-37.
Nearly half of Evanston’s points in the fourth quarter came from the free-throw line. As a team, Evanston converted on 13-of-18 attempts from the foul stripe in the fourth.
Senior wing Chase Critchfield led Evanston with 21 points and was five-of-five from 3. Braxton Hiatt had 17 point, and Evans added 11.
Against Rock Springs in Saturday’s regional championship match, Evanston faced the top scorer in the 4A West in freshman guard Graedyn Buell. Buell scored just 13 in the game, well below his season average of 21.5 points per game.
Hiatt scored seven of his game-high 25 points in the second quarter, and Evanston led 37-29 at the half.
Rock Springs climbed back to within five points at the end of the third in large part due to a seven-point quarter by Buell. It was the only quarter in which Buell converted on multiple field goals.
Critchfield twice hit from 3 in the fourth quarter and Hiatt added seven more to his point tally, as Evanston outscored Rock Springs 26-12, running away with a 77-58 win to become regional champions.
After the regional championship win, coach Cornia was holding a piece of pyrite — or fools gold — as a caution to his team of the goal still ahead.
“Our goals are all about next week,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been working toward since the summer.”
Evanston’s first opponent at the state tournament is Cheyenne Central, which lost the 4A East consolation championship to Sheridan on Saturday. Central is one of just two teams from the Eastern Conference that Evanston did not play during the preseason.
Central (14-12, 8-4 4A East) defeated Laramie on Thursday to earn a bid into the state tournament but lost its next two games to fall to the fourth seed from the East. Senior wing Riley Fraley leads the team in scoring (15.6 ppg) and rebounds (6.9 rpg), along with senior post Willie Jones (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Evanston will play Central at Kelly Walsh High School on Thursday at 9 p.m. The game can be listened to online at mylocalradio.com or on the radio at KNYN 99.1 FM.