MOUNTAIN IRON — Fresh off their win Thursday night against Cherry in the Section 7A Championship, the Mountain Iron-Buhl girls’ basketball team is eyeing down a familiar opponent in their Class A State quarterfinal matchup today.
The Rangers — seeded No. 2 in the north — will take on No. 3 Cass Lake-Bena, a team they’ve beaten twice this year, both times by a score of 74-64. The champions of Section 8A, the Panthers have given MI-B two high quality games and Rangers head coach Jeff Buffetta expects a third one today when the teams do battle at 4:30 p.m. in Pequot Lakes.
“We’ve got a familiar opponent in Cass Lake-Bena,” Buffetta said. “And whether that’s good or bad, at least it means the teams will be well prepared. We know them well and they know us well. It makes for an intriguing matchup.
Rangers junior Ava Butler expects the third game between the two teams to be the most difficult yet, but is confident in her squad’s ability to survive and advance.
“I think the third time will be the hardest,” Butler said at Monday’s practice. “They know what we do and we pretty much know what they do. They’re a very skilled team and I think it’ll be tough but if we keep playing together the way we are, I think we can do it.”
After a slow first start against Cherry last week, the Rangers never let up in the second half and won convincingly, 60-28. Sophomore Sage Ganyo says the amount of trust and teamwork amongst all of MI-B is at a high.
“It was pretty amazing to get that win,” Ganyo said. “It was a fun game. The first half went a little rough but we were able to talk through it at halftime and we came together as a team. We figured out what we needed to fix and it all worked itself out after that.”
Coming off their section finals loss from the year before, Butler says getting the win this year feels that much better.
“Losing it last year was tough,” Butler said. “So coming together this year and getting over that loss was a great feeling. We all worked so hard to get here and we’re happy to have made it this far.”
With an air of uncertainty surrounding the entire season for every team, the Rangers are more than pleased to be able to keep going during the year of COVID-19.
“This is probably the best that we could have hoped for looking at the beginning of the season,” said freshman Jordan Zubich. “We didn’t even know if there was going to be a state tournament this year so to make it this far has been great.”
“We’ve been hoping for the best all season long,” Ganyo added. “We kept pushing every single day at practice hoping we could keep going and this is our outcome so it’s made us really appreciate the whole season.”
Opening the state tournament at the regional Pequot Lakes site will be a different feeling for the Rangers, who have grown accustomed to playing at Williams Arena or even the Target Center. Although it’s not the biggest stage in terms of seats, it’ll still be a big moment for the team according to Buffetta.
“All you have to do is put the word ‘state’ in front of it. It doesn’t really matter where the game takes place. You’re in the final eight which is a good experience no matter what venue you’re at. You know you’re playing another good team and it’s exciting just to be in the state tournament. This whole year has been different so having a different venue is just another part of the experience.”
Zubich felt similarly about opening state play outside of Minneapolis.
“It definitely won’t feel the exact same playing outside of the cities. There will be less people there which will feel different. I remember playing at state in the seventh grade and I was terrified of the big stage but I don’t think it will end up being a big deal.”
Playing their best team basketball all season long, Ganyo reflected on another strong game the Rangers played as a team: their March 4 win against Crosby-Ironton, 73-56.
“That one was pretty fun. We had to seek out where their best players were on the court. Everyone was assigned a specific player and we all had our own role throughout the game. Everyone played their roles and played them well and it made for a fun win.”
Buffetta says matching up with the Panthers once more should be an exciting game for both teams with both squads being aware of the weapons each team possesses.
“It’s going to be difficult. They’re a good team,” Buffetta said. “I think we were behind in both games at halftime and had to fight our way back in. They’ve got tremendous shooters all over the court and really good size.
“I think it's a tremendous matchup for both teams. We’re both very similar and it’s going to be about whichever team shoots better. We’ll have to rebound well. They’ve got some length on us so if we rebound and hit our shots, we’ll be okay.”
With all the games at state spread out more than in previous years, Buffetta says not much has changed when it comes to preparing for a state tournament run.
“No matter what year it is, your first focus is winning the first game. All of your preparation is for the first game and if you’re fortunate enough to win then you get to focus on the second game. It’s the same situation this year except if we win, we get an entire week before the next game. But none of that means anything unless you come prepared for tomorrow.”
MI-B’s quarterfinal battle with Cass Lake-Bena begins today at 4:30 p.m. Live stream access to the game can be purchased at www.prepspotlight.tv with packages beginning at $9.99. In person tickets are not available to the general public.