The high school hoops season came to a premature end for the host team in last weekend’s 4A West Girls’ Regional Tournament, as back-to-back losses to Rock Springs and Cody ended the Evanston Lady Devils’ hopes for a trip to Casper for the 4A state Basketball Tournament.
“Against Rock Springs, I think we battled,” EHS head coach Jeremy Fessler said of his team’s 49-47 loss to the Lady Tigers. “It just seemed like every time we’d make a run, they’d answer with a big shot.”
In a loser-out game against Cody the following day, the Lady Devils started strong but were undone by a rough fourth quarter, falling to the Lady Broncs in another contest that came down to the wire at 43-36.
“I knew the Cody game would be tighter than the last time we played them,” Fessler said. “We watched film, and they had their hands on a lot of our passes. In that first game, those passes would bounce back to us. We got all of the 50-50 balls in the first game, but not the second.”
Rock Springs 49, Lady Devils 47
The Lady Devils opened the tournament Thursday against Rock Springs with one goal in mind: Contain the Lady Tigers’ Brenli Jenkins.
That task proved difficult, as Jenkins went off for a game-high 24 points. But despite Jenkins’ performance, Evanston put themselves in a position to win the game at the end; Rock Springs was able to squeak out the 49-47 win.
“We could have been down and out multiple times in that game, and we just kept coming back,” Fessler said. “But there was just too much [Brenli] Jenkins. We just couldn’t match up with her, she was too much to handle for us. It was one of our highest offensive outputs of the season, we just couldn’t get a handle on her.”
The Lady Devils trailed 23-16 at the half, with Maggie Moore and Stacia Barker pacing Evanston with four points apiece.
Rock Springs outscored the Lady Devils 15-11 in the third to make the score 38-27 heading into the final frame. But just when the Lady Tigers appeared to have the game in hand, Evanston battled back with 20 points in the fourth to pull within two.
“We took advantage of our height against Rock Springs and got the ball to the posts a lot,” senior Amber Lowe said about the team’s fourth-quarter comeback.
Down 46-40 with under two minutes to play in the contest, Zocia Nowakowski hit one of two free throws to cut the lead to five. An Evanston foul put Jenkins at the line, who sank one to make it 48-41.
A 3-pointer by Lowe on the Lady Devils’ next possession cut the lead to four at 48-44 with a minute to play. Rock Springs hit a free throw to push the lead back to five at 49-44; with 16 seconds left, Heidi Barton hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to pull Evanston within two at 49-47. That was as close as the Lady Devils would get, however, as Rock Springs was able to run out the clock.
Sophomore post Stacia Barker was a rebound shy of a double-double, netting 13 points and pulling down nine boards; nine of her points came in the second half. Amber Lowe also finished in double figures for Evanston, sinking three 3-pointers en route to 12 points; Zocia Nowakowski chipped in nine points, seven from the charity stripe.
Heidi Barton and Taryn Wagstaff finished with five points apiece, while Kambree Brown hit a shot from behind the arc for her three points on the game.
Cody 43, Lady Devils 36
Friday’s consolation quarterfinals matchup against the Fillies nstarted off well for Evanston, with the Lady Devils holding a 8-6 lead after one quarter. Cody battled back in the second, however, outscoring Evanston 13-9 to take a 19-17 lead into the break.
“There was no rhythm to that Cody game,” Fessler said. “It seemed like we’d get up four or five points, and that would be it. Something would happen — a missed shot or a foul — and Cody would chip back down.”
Evanston came out swinging in the third, outscoring the Fillies 12-8 to take a 29-27 lead into the final frame. Not content to roll over quite yet, Cody battled back to retake the lead midway through the fourth quarter; with time winding down, the Lady Devils had three crucial opportunities to get back into contention but were unable to convert. The Fillies held on for the 43-36 win, ending Evanston’s postseason hopes.
“The Cody game was a back-and-forth, defensive battle for the most part,” Fessler said. “And at the end, at the three-minute mark, we get three good looks. We called four-low on an inbound for Zocia [Nowakowski], Stacia had a look on the block and we called an ISO for Taryn Wagstaff and none of them fell. Meanwhile, Cody is hitting free throws to put it out of reach.”
Cody’s free throw shooting would become the telling statistic of the game — the Fillies shot a whopping 27 foul shots, making 20; Evanston countered with just six trips to the charity stripe (making four), a head-scratching discrepancy to the tune of 16 points.
“Shots were not falling in the beginning and Cody’s were,” Nowakowski said. “It was hard to be aggressive and not get called with a foul.”
Fellow senior Amber Lowe agreed.
“It was hard to find a flow in the Cody game because we fouled them a lot,” she said. “But when we were able to push the ball we got a lot of good looks.”
Nowakowski paced Evanston in scoring with nine points, followed by eight from Lowe and six from Barker.
“The girls worked really hard — Stacia Barker had a really good weekend, I thought, she looked a lot better offensively,” Fessler said. “We had girls that had good quarters here and there — Zocia [Nowakowski] had a good third quarter in the Cody game, Amber [Lowe] had some times when she was hitting her shots.”
Taryn Wagstaff netted five points, to go along with five assists and two rebounds; Maggie Moore and Heidi Barton finished with three points apiece.
“Coach [Dave] Deru and I talked before the tournament, and we knew if we could shoot around 35% from the field and 60% from the line, we were going to go to state,” Fessler said. “We shot 26% against Rock Springs and 27% against Cody. But for most of the time, we struggled to get shots to fall consistently. We always played hard defensively, we always worked — that’s not the issue. It was just getting shots to fall.”
With the Lady Devils eliminated from postseason contention, Fessler said it was a subdued group of players he and the assistant coaches addressed after the game.
“We had some very upset young women in the room, there were some tears shed, for sure,” he said. “They were frustrated — they had everything right there. They had the want, they had the desire — it just didn’t work out. But that’s basketball, and that’s life. You can play as good as you can, but if the shots don’t fall, you’re going home. It’s part of basketball.”
That said, he also reminded the team that there would be adversity in all walks of life — what matters is how they respond to it.
“Basketball right now seems like the biggest part, but it’s just a little piece of their lives,” he said. “They’ll all go on to do great things, and they’ll look back and remember the good memories. It’s not life or death, but it can sure feel like it in the moment. It’s something they’ll recover from.”
Asked what he’ll miss about this team, Fessler said the family-type atmosphere this team created, amongst themselves and with the coaches.
“I think the camaraderie, the leadership that those seniors had — I think it’s my closest-knit team that we’ve had,” Fessler said. “They stuck up for each other, they were positive with each other, they worked well together. Practice was fun. I’ve had years where we were doing pretty dang good, but it was a struggle to get through practice. These girls were fun — they were excited and happy, they had smiles on their faces all the time. This year went really fast because of that. I loved going to practice and being around the girls. That’s what I’ll take from this group — how they built this program into a family.”
“We have become a family over the years, and had a lot of good memories and close games,” Lowe added. “I’m going to miss playing with my team and all the laughs we’ve had.”