MINNEAPOLIS—Saturday was history in the making for Mountain Iron-Buhl.
The Ranger girls’ basketball team finally got over the hump after 12 trips to the state tournament in the last 13 years and won themselves a state title.
Taking on the BOLD Warriors, MI-B endured a slow start of their own that lasted about two minutes before going on a tear that put them up 12-4. From there, they never looked back as they ran away with things, 52-21, bringing a state championship back to Mountain Iron-Buhl for the first time in school history.
Junior standout Jordan Zubich led the Rangers in scoring with 15 points. On what it meant to finally grab a state title for their community, Zubich gave credit to every Ranger that played ahead of this year’s squad.
“This isn’t just our state championship,” Zubich said. “It’s all the girls, even the girls that made it to the state tournament the first time when the youngest girl on our team was just a month old. We grew up watching them and we wanted to be the big girls in the big game. This championship is for them too. They worked so hard to get here and it was unfortunate they couldn’t come out on top but it was for them.”
After winning two stressful, high-intensity games on Thursday and Friday, the Rangers were allowed to breathe easy on Saturday, taking a 32-15 lead into halftime. Still, MI-B had to come out ready to finish the job.
“We knew that we still had work to do,” senior Sage Ganyo said. “Especially in the state tournament. Anything can happen and nothing is handed [to you]. We just worked our butts off.”
Coming out of the break, the five Ranger starters huddled together on the court where junior Hali Savela gave her team some important words.
“We kind of got together and sent up a prayer and it worked,” Savela said. “We just told each other that we have to keep our composure. The first five minutes [of the second half] are the most important. That really worked for us.”
For head coach Jeff Buffetta, 25 years as the Rangers leader has led to this moment.
“It feels good,” Buffetta said. “I didn’t quite know what it would feel like. These girls, after they handled that adversity yesterday, I saw the way they reacted to preparing last night, the looseness that they had in the gym this morning. As we prepared, you just knew they were ready. There was a difference in watching today and it was fun to see.”
“It just means the world,” Ganyo added. “This has been my dream since I was in the womb. Just to have it come true, it just means so much. I’m just so proud of [these] guys.”
After going down 4-0 to start, the Rangers got on the board with Zubich knocking down a pair of free throws. They’d take a lead they’d never surrender when Savela knocked down a three and then followed that up on the next trip down with a bucket in the paint. Gabby Lira then kept things moving, driving through the lane and putting it up for two, 9-4.
MI-B forced a BOLD timeout when an extended possession from the Rangers was continued with two offensive rebounds. Eighth grader Anna Neyens capped things off with a three-pointer to force the break.
The Warriors hung around trailing by eight for some time but the Rangers busted things open with a Savela three that made it a double-digit game, 22-11. MI-B got out in transition on their next possession with Zubich hitting an open Lira who layed it in for two.
BOLD hit some late shots in the half but Zubich, Neyens and Lira all found late scores, sending MI-B into the break up 32-15.
Taking control of the first half after brushing off the slow start, Zubich stressed the importance of staying calm, a theme the Rangers took to heart throughout their tournament run.
“Basketball is a game of runs. We’re going to get down but we have to get up. [Coach Buffetta] was telling us we can’t get too high, we can’t get too low. We just have to stay focused, stay calm and we were pretty confident in each other. Playing together for so long, we know how each other works. We can read what everyone else is doing. We just kept our composure and we stayed calm and it paid off.”
Heading into halftime, Buffetta told his team that they had to come out in the second and start by controlling the first five minutes.
“We knew early that we wanted to control and keep it all going. We knew if we won the first five minutes, we could control the clock after that. They just executed about as well as you could ask.”
MI-B did exactly that to start the final half of their season, scoring the first nine points to extend their lead past 20. Ganyo started the run by knocking down a three. Then she picked up a steal and dumped it off to Savela for two. Lira then scored again in the paint before Ganyo scored on a drive of her own, 41-15.
Finishing the game with a 10-point, 13-rebound double-double, the junior Lira had plenty of success in the paint with the BOLD defense leaving her all alone time and again. Whether she was finding success on the boards for herself or making the buckets in the lane, Lira said she was ready to help in whatever way she could.
“I just kind of realized that we have our shooters and if we want to win, we need someone to get in there and rebound and get the ball moving,” Lira said. “[On offense,] they weren’t really covering under the baskets as much. They were looking more for the ball up high than down low so I just stuck down low.”
The Rangers still had to play smart ball throughout the rest of the second half, but the final 10 minutes felt like a formality as they never lost their composure and built up their lead. When all was said and done, the Rangers had captured their first ever state title, 52-21.
After the game, Ganyo, Zubich and Savela were all named to the 2023 Class A State Tournament Team
As the team’s only senior, Ganyo talked about the experience her high school basketball career has been, even getting varsity time with older sister Mia, a 2020 MI-B grad.
“It was such a ride,” Ganyo said. “It was so much fun. Playing with my sister was so much fun also but these are the girls I grew up playing with since I was in first grade and they were in kindergarten. [We played in] Pacesetter, Great State, like everything. Just to go out with a bang like this, it just means the world. I’m so happy.”
Ganyo finished the game with nine points. On what the lone senior has done for the program, Buffetta says there aren’t many better than her.
“It’s that leadership. We have a lot of talent 7-12. When you have a senior that knows it’s your last chance, it’s the one that’s the most dedicated in the program, it brings that extra zest to the game that you need and that energy. Sage brought it every day. She really brought it in this tournament we’re all really proud of her for that.”
For the leading-scorer Zubich, state championships are beginning to become a family affair. Older brother Asher won the state football championship earlier this school year while being coached by dad Dan. The future North Carolina Tarheel says having another state title in the family is a special feeling.
“It’s crazy. I think if this game would have came out a different way, I never would have heard the end of it. I’m probably with [the basketball team] more than I am my real family during the season. No offense to my regular family but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“My family, they always come to support me. Looking over at my brother and my dad, they’ve experienced this feeling. They’re just so happy for me and happy for the team. It’s just so surreal. It’s an amazing moment for my family.”
That’s not the only family affair at MI-B. Hali Savela soaked in the state championship moment with assistant coach and mother Dawn. Up in the stands was sister Macy, a 2019 MI-B grad.
“It’s really special,” Hali said of sharing the experience with her mom. “She’s always been there for me since we were little and she was also our coach when we were little. We’ve had our moments, we really have. It’s just so awesome to be able to spend this with her. My sister, up there supporting in the stands, I’ve watched her go through this. She actually posted six years ago today I had a little sign for her sitting in the stands. It’s just really special.”
The Rangers starters had to give credit to the rest of the team for helping make the push to a state title a reality.
“I feel like they all know their roles and that’s super important.” Savela said. “[Jordan and Sage,] they can push the ball up the floor and hit their shots but everybody knows their specific role and that’s what makes the team really special.”
The Rangers even created their own word to describe what the bench brought every game, coined by Zubich as “benergy,” a portmanteau of bench energy.
“We wrote down goals in the locker room,” Ganyo said. “We wrote down ‘benergy’ and that was the main thing for us. The energy from the bench was crazy. Us as starters, that means the world to us to have the other girls pretty much like they’re playing the game.”
With the Ranger football team winning a state championship just four months ago, the towns of Mountain Iron and Buhl are starting to feel like title towns.
“It’s really crazy,” Savela said. “Yesterday we talked about how our boys football team, they faced adversity in their game and they got over it. You kind of felt that with us yesterday because we had to face adversity too. It’s really so special, two in a year. They were all here supporting us today and we did the same for them. It’s crazy.”
“It’s just a surreal feeling,” Ganyo said. “As a senior, I’m just so proud of my senior class. We all went out with a bang and that’s just the best feeling in the world.”
After finally winning his first state title after 25 years as head coach and making 12 trips to state in the last 13 years, Buffetta said there’s no better feeling than getting the job done with this group of players.
“It’s obviously been a very long run,” Buffetta said. “[I’m] very proud of the success of our program, very proud of everybody. I just think back over the last 13 years and our 12 trips here, all the assistant coaches we’ve had and all of the players that we’ve had that have dedicated all the time and have shown these guys about what it’s like to show up every day and put the work in. It was awesome to see them finish it off.
“I have a list of all the players that have played in the state tournament on my computer. I can’t remember what the number was but I believe that all of them were here with us today and they were enjoying it like they were still playing in it with us. This is pretty awesome for all of them.”
For this special team, Buffetta says it was their consistency all throughout the season that let them reach the highest highs the program has ever seen.
“They consistently show up, consistently put the work in, consistently give effort every day. That’s the biggest thing I can use to describe them. You know where they’re going to be because they’re always working on their craft. Today, it proved what can happen because of it.
“They did what we’ve been trying to do for a long time and it’s great.”
BHS 15 6—21
MIB 32 20—52
BOLD: Lainey Braulick 8, Mari Ryberg 5, Kenzie Visser 4, Lily Dean 2, Layla Pfarr 2; Three pointers: Braulick 1; Free throws: 4-10; Total fouls: 6; Fouled out: none.
Mountain Iron-Buhl: Hali Savela 10, Jordan Zubich 15, Kate Nelson 2, Gabby Lira 10, Sage Ganyo 9, Anna Neyens 6; Three pointers: Savela 2, Zubich 2, Ganyo 1, Neyens 2; Free throws: 3-3; Total fouls: 12; Fouled out: none.
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