RIVERTON – The Puncher boys’ basketball team is the second seed going into the 2021 2A State Basketball Championship following a tight, physical battle against Rocky Mountain High School at the conference championships.
The rollercoaster weekend opened with quadrant play on Thursday, Feb. 25, featuring a match against St. Stephens with the winner advancing to State and the loser going home. The Punchers sailed to a 64-33 victory and a spot at State.
On Thursday afternoon, Big Piney defeated Wind River, 70-60, to fight Rocky Mountain for the first and second seed at State. The Punchers nearly tied the match several times, but Rocky Mountain pulled ahead in the final quarter for the win, 54-47.
“It was a tough loss tonight, but we’ll come back,” said senior Camron Thomas after the Rocky Mountain game. “It’s a great feeling knowing we’re going to State. We still have the second seed. We’re staying hungry and we’re going to show what we have next week at State.”
“It’s cool that we’re going into State second seed,” said senior Liam Hughes. “We’re going to win (State).”
“It’s a pretty good feeling that we got to State, especially in the second seed,” added senior Kaden Raza. “Hopefully we can go win.”
Big Piney roared onto the court in the first quarter, launching a 25-point offensive while an ironclad defense forced turnover after turnover, holding St. Stephens to nine points. Junior Seth Stoutenburg led scoring with six points. Raza, senior Edwin Gonzalez and junior Ethan Whiterock each shot in five points. Senior Carlos Munoz rounded out the tally with four points.
The Punchers outscored St. Stephens, 12-6, in the second quarter. Sophomore Jovany Munoz opened play with a 2-pointer and drew a foul to make a free throw. Thomas tossed in two free throws. Carlos Munoz caught a steal and Thomas followed up with a shot from inside the paint.
Big Piney still won the third quarter, 17-13. Carlos Munoz, Gonzalez, Stoutenburg and Hughes kept Big Piney on the scoreboard.
Big Piney kept throwing the punches in the final quarter, outscoring St. Stephens, 10-6. Junior Jaspur Brower joined the fray and shot in a 2-pointer.
Wind River proved a tougher opponent and kept the Punchers on their feet. Big Piney managed to stay ahead at the end of the first and second quarter by one or two possessions.
Wind River outscored the Punchers in the third quarter, 17-15. Refusing to call it a game, Big Piney powered ahead in the final quarter with a 23-point offense and held Wind River to 16 points.
“I feel like our best game was versus Wind River,” said Whiterock. “That win gave us the opportunity to play for first and second seed and it was a good match.”
The Punchers and Rocky Mountain scuffled for possession in the first and second quarters. The Grizzlies pulled ahead at the beginning of the second quarter. Gonzalez and Stoutenburg both shot in 2-pointers, closing the gap to four points.
Raza made a three-point play in the second quarter when he caught a foul on a 2-pointer to put Big Piney one point from taking the lead. Rocky Mountain scored a free throw, then Raza swept in with a steal. Stoutenburg followed up with a 2-pointer to tie the game, 18-18.
Rocky Mountain edged ahead, although a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Whiterock before halftime kept the score to 28-22 in Rocky Mountain’s favor at halftime.
Rocky Mountain moved ahead by nine points early in the third quarter. Baskets by Whiterock, Raza and Gonzalez closed the deficit to three points. Thomas shot in a pair of 2-pointers to place Big Piney one possession away from the lead.
Rocky Mountain widened the gap in the fourth. Hughes grabbed a steal and made a break across the court for a layup, drawing a foul for an extra point. Carlos Munoz made an inside basket and a free throw, closing the gap to three points.
Rocky Mountain managed to maintain the lead as the last minutes counted down.
“Tonight didn’t go how we wanted it to, but it’s still okay,” said Gonzalez. “To finally be able to play Rocky Mountain – the team that’s been above us the rankings the whole season – it feels good knowing that we could compete with them.”
The team hopes to make history at the State Championships, said Carlos Munoz.
“We’ll focus on the next game,” he added. “We have to work hard in practice.”
“I feel like we have a pretty good chance at State and we’re going to make the best of it no matter what,” said Whiterock.
“We’re ready to show what we got at State and will try to get Big Piney the championship,” said Gonzalez.
“It’s been a joy to watch these boys grow over the past years and mature into the group they have become,” said head coach Nate Strong. “We’re excited to get back to work this week and prepare for State.”