Last weekend’s 4A West Regional Tournament ran the gamut of emotions for the host Evanston Red Devils, from extraordinary highs to frustrating lows, as well as watching a teammate’s quest for a final state appearance end in heartbreaking fashion.
But when the dust finally settled on regionals Saturday, Evanston emerged with a 3-1 record and a ticket to the 4A State Tournament in Casper this week, beating Green River 48-27 in the consolation championship. The Red Devils open the state tournament Thursday at Casper College against No. 2 seed Sheridan.
The tournament got off to an inauspicious start, with a 55-45 loss to Cody, the No. 3 seed out of the Northwest Quadrant. Knowing it was win or go home from that point on, the Red Devils rattled off wins against Jackson and Rock Springs, setting the stage for the consolation championship against Green River.
“The goal was to win a regional championship, especially in our place and playing in front of our fans,” said EHS head coach Lex Cornia. “There was a lot of disappointment Thursday night after the Cody game, but that’s why you go play — anything can happen in these games, as these two tournaments this past weekend have shown. So to be one of the teams fortunate enough to not have ended our season, we’re grateful.”
The tournament was not without its casualties — Red Devil senior Dawson Crofts injured his knee in the Rock Springs game and missed the consolation championship; he’ll be sidelined for the state tournament, as well.
“This is a kid that’s poured 17 years of his life into getting to these three days,” Cornia said of Crofts. “To be denied that is heartbreaking for a kid. But we’re grateful to be one of the last eight still going, and I think we still have some things to do this season. I think the kids believe that, too.”
Cody 55, Red Devils 45
Thursday’s matchup against the Broncs was the second meeting of the two teams — Evanston won the first in a walk, 57-31.
But it was a different Cody team that took the court at regionals, catching the home team off balance from the outset.
“Cody played very well — I thought they fed off our crowd,” Cornia said. “They built some momentum early, and we weren’t able to respond.”
Evanston got off to a quick start, building a 10-4 lead in the opening minutes of the game. The Red Devils pushed that lead to 14-7 by the end of the first quarter and appeared to be rolling.
But the Broncs began hitting shots as the second quarter progressed, and as the game went to break, Cody had cut the lead to one at 20-19. Mason Ellingford led the Red Devils with nine first-half points, followed by Dawson Crofts with six.
The third quarter was all Cody, as the Broncs exploded for 20 points, holding Evanston to nine. With one quarter left, the home team was down 39-29; the Red Devils were unable to close the gap and Cody held on for the upset 55-45.
Crofts led the Red Devils in scoring with 14 points, followed by 13 from Ellingford and nine from Braxton Lind.
Asked what led to his team’s downfall against the Broncs, Cornia said the answer was simple.
“I thought we had gotten away from what had got us to 8-2 in conference,” he said. “The theme of the rest of the week was ‘Remember who you are.’ Know the type of team you’ve become, and play within that identity. Against Cody, we got away from that, and they punished us for it.”
Red Devils 62,
Entering a must-win situation with another team called the Broncs, the Red Devils came out firing on all cylinders Friday against Jackson, in a game that was decided by the time Dawson Crofts sank a 3-pointer to end the first quarter. What Evanston lacked in momentum the night before they made up for in a big way against Jackson; the difference in attitude and effort was palpable.
“Friday morning before school, we had a team meeting where coach Cornia showed us film of the Cody game,” explained Red Devil senior Mason Ellingford. “We had bad reactions to calls, and we played like a bunch of individuals — that was a huge focus for us going forward. We needed to always be there for each other and keep our heads up when things were bad.”
The Red Devils hit on their first six shots of the contest — four 2-pointers and a pair of 3-pointers — and led 22-5 at the end of the first quarter; Evanston led 42-12 at the half, paced by Burke Thomas with 14 points.
Cornia emptied his bench in the second half, and the Red Devils allowed Jackson just six second-half points, as the team cruised to the 62-18 win.
Thomas led the Red Devils in scoring with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Braxton Lind finished with 11 points, followed by Crofts with nine; David Baxter and Latham Chandler chipped in six apiece.
A dominating performance to be sure, but one that may not have been possible were it not for the early-morning film session Ellingford mentioned earlier.
“What really came together for the team against Jackson — which we saw in the next two games — was their presence on the floor,” Cornia said. “I think watching the Cody film was shocking to them. We weren’t that team that was picking up our teammates and fighting through calls. The whole purpose of the Jackson game was to get back to who we are, and that really set us up for the rest of the week.”
Red Devils 47,
Rock Springs 39
Evanston’s second loser-out game in a row was a slugfest worthy of a Rocky movie, with both fighters standing at the center of the ring trading bombs.
“My dad has been a high school assistant coach for 31 years, and he said that was one of the top three high school basketball games he’s ever witnessed,” Cornia said. “It was two teams playing hard, in a great environment — up two, then tied, down one, back up — as stressful as it was, it was just a privilege to be a part of it.”
Rock Springs — who had given No. 1 seed Star Valley all they could handle Friday before losing 42-40 — traded baskets with the Red Devils for much of the first quarter, with Evanston holding a 10-8 lead after one.
The Tigers re-took the lead midway through the second quarter, and whipped their fans into a frenzy when Rock Springs’ Tyson Davenport grabbed the rebound of a Justis Reese 3-pointer and slammed it home for a score, capping off a 10-0 run. The Tigers led 22-18 at the break.
The Red Devils began the second half with an 8-2 run to take their first lead of the second half at 26-24, though an injury to Dawson Crofts sidelined the senior for the remainder of the game. Down one of his top playmakers, Cornia looked to the rest of the team to respond.
“When Dawson went down, one of the things I’m most proud of is the way the guys rallied after losing him,” he said. “This phrase gets overused sometimes, but they played inspired basketball. That fourth quarter, when Dawson came back and sat on the bench, it gives me chills just thinking about it. They told Dawson, ‘We’re playing for you.’”
And play they did. With Casey Periman in for the injured Crofts, the Red Devils held a 41-39 lead with under a minute to play, with Burke Thomas hitting a pair of clutch free throws down the stretch. After a traveling call on Rock Springs with 23 seconds to play, Thomas went back to the line to shoot a 1-and-1, hitting both to make it a two-possession game. A late steal by David Baxter found its way into the hands of Periman, whose bucket sealed the 45-39 win and punched the Red Devils’ ticket to state.
Thomas led the team in scoring for the second straight game, netting 18 points, including a pair of 3-pointers. Mason Ellingford posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while David Baxter hit a pair from behind the arc en route to nine points in the contest.
As a team, the Red Devils shot 53% from the floor.
“Both of those teams were deserving to go to state,” Cornia said. “I felt terrible for the Rock Springs kids — it was a shame that somebody had to lose that game. It exemplified what’s best about high school sports.”
Red Devils 48,
Green River 27
With their berth in the state tournament secured following the dramatic win against Rock Springs, the Red Devils squared off Saturday afternoon against Green River for the consolation championship.
In the close quarters of the Davis Middle School gym, Evanston jumped out to a 22-10 lead in the first quarter against a Wolves team just an hour or two removed from their upset win of Cody in the consolation semis. The Red Devils controlled the tempo throughout, posting a decisive 48-27 win to place third for the tournament and lock up the No. 3 seed at state.
Cornia’s bench saw plenty of action against Green River, though the usual suspects led the team in scoring.
Mason Ellingford paced the team with 14 points, followed by 11 from David Baxter, who went 3-for-4 from behind the arc.
Braxton Lind added nine points, and led the team in blocked shots with two. Chase Brady and Burke Thoms chipped in three points apiece, while Jagger Mitchell, Casey Periman, Carson Wall and Wade Bowen each finished with two.
“I think we’ve finally become that team that’s balanced,” Cornia said.
“That’s something that other coaches kind of know about us now — you take away one kid and we have other guys that will step up and hurt you just as bad.”
With brackets for the 4A State Tournament now set, Evanston will square off against Sheridan Thursday, the No. 2 seed out of the 4A East.
The Red Devils have played Sheridan once this season, losing to the Generals 67-48 back in January. But that was during Evanston’s 11-game winless streak; the team that will take the floor at Casper College Thursday has won 12 of its last 15 games.
“I think we’re a different team than we were then,” Cornia said about the earlier loss to the Generals. “I’m sure they are, as well. Losing Dawson [Crofts] definitely changes things — it’s going to be about addressing how we get back to the team that we were with Dawson, knowing that he’s not on the floor.”
“Dawson’s super-important to us and he always has been; we’ve all been super close for a long time so this is pretty hard,” he said. “But he’ll still be with us on the bench and in practice this week. We’ll miss him on the court, but he’s always been a great leader for us, and we just have to keep our heads up and stay focused.”
As for now, the Red Devils have a few days to prepare before hopping on a bus to Casper.
“We’ll try to tweak a few things, rest our legs, rest our brains — it was a really emotional weekend,” he said. “This week is about getting guys’ legs back under them and letting them regroup, get ready to go do it again...I’m just grateful that we get to spend one more week with these kids. Half the state just ended their seasons, and to get more time with this group of young men is a privilege.”