Swarmed by teammates and fans, Benton Central seniors Caitlyn Tolen, Cassidy Deno and Courtney Lester raised their arms in triumph in their final game at Arena Gymnasium.
But for the Bison to get to their ultimate goal, the team’s complementary players will have to do their part.
Saturday night gave a glimpse that BC is not a two-player team, as six players created the ultimate team environment in a physical, defensive battle against Class 3A No. 8 Western.
The fourth-ranked Bison never felt certain they would be crowned champions until Tessa Brouillette’s steal and dish to Lester for a layup in the final seconds, solidifying a 40-34 victory.
“That is what is so hard about our team is we have different options, and each night, you never know who is going to go off,” said Tolen, who was limited to just five field goal attempts and scored 10 points.
The Bison (20-3) advance to play Rensselaer on the Bombers’ home court at 10 a.m. next Saturday in the regional.
Deno scored 16 points, the final two on a pair of free throws with 1:28 remaining to put BC up 38-31. Brouillette’s steal and two early 3-pointers proved huge, and Lester and Evonnie Payne put their length to use to keep the Western guards at bay offensively.
And then there was Katie Shields, a freshman playing the biggest game of her life.
Shields pulled down five rebounds and scored four points. Both baskets by Shields were momentum-changing plays.
She rebounded Deno’s missed 3 and put it back late in the third quarter to put BC ahead 29-26, and she ripped a Tolen miss away from Western forward Raven Black and threw it back in off the glass with 3:33 to go to push BC ahead by five.
“The big girl inside, the freshman, she ended up making some big plays that she didn’t make the first time they played us, and Lester did a great job on defense and was active all over the floor,” Western coach Chris Keisling said. “They are those two kids, Cassidy Deno and Caitlyn Tolen, but there’s other kids that can step up, and that will be the key for them as they go down the tournament trail.”
Bison coach David Baxter told Shields before the game she had to “be a ball hog” and go get the ball. After initial jitters and four straight missed attempts, she supplied the shot in the arm.
“I just had to do it,” Shields said. “I knew we all had our role to play.”
Each mastered their individual role on a night where Baxter elected to shorten his bench and maximize using the players he believed best matched up with Western’s speed and athleticism.
The Panthers (19-5) advanced to the final four in last year’s Class 3A tournament and came in already having beaten BC once this season. Twice proved difficult as Western made just 10 of 35 field goals and struggled to get the ball inside. Seventeen of those 35 attempts came from the 3-point line, with just five makes.
Benton Central, led by Deno’s seven rebounds, also outrebounded the Panthers, who got nine boards from Black.
“Raven Black, she is an excellent rebounder,” Deno said. “That was our No. 1 goal to start the game was to win the rebounding battle, and I think we did that tonight.”
The Bison won their 17th sectional title and fourth in five years, but held off on the celebration until Lester’s layup. Shortly after, the BC student section stormed the court.
“Everybody is always going to remember Courtney Lester hitting that layup at the buzzer to seal the deal,” Baxter said. “She’ll remember that for the rest of her life.”