Boys win bracket at Lakota Nation

Jason Ferguson

Heading into this season, Custer High School head basketball coach Paul Kelley privately worried that his team might struggle mightily at the outset of the season. In fact, he was worried the team would lose a lot.
And why wouldn’t he? The team lost nine seniors to graduation and was looking at a rotation that not only relied on freshmen, but started them as well. He just wasn’t sure how the youngsters would perform when the lights came on and the competition began.
Last weekend in Rapid City, he learned a lot about his team. So did the rest of their future opponents for that matter. There was no intimidation.
In a setting where freshmen could easily wilt they instead stood tall, boosted by a dominant inside tandem of Gage Tennyson and Kyle Virtue, the Wildcats went 3-1 at the Lakota Nation Invitational, winning their final three games to capture the Makosica bracket of the tournament.
The tournament, back after one year away due to COVID-19, featured eight more teams and a new format that saw three different three-day tournaments played at once, with a “challenge day” before the tournaments on Wednesday.
The Wildcats won all three games in tournament play, and lost to only Oceti Sakowin bracket (top bracket) champion Lower Brule during the challenge day.
The championship game of the Makosica bracket saw the Wildcats take on Crazy Horse in a game the public address announcer playfully dubbed “a rematch 145 years in the making.”
After falling behind early 15-10 following a Jaysen Meeter three-pointer, but outscored the Chiefs 17-2 over the remainder of the first half en route to a  dominant 61-40 win.
“It was kind of shocking. We thought the kids would be uptight, a little nervous, but they responded well,” Custer head coach Paul Kelley said. “You have to get them some credit. Are they too young to realize the situation they are in?
“But give credit to the upperclassmen, too. They make the kids more relaxed and can draw upon their experiences.”
After taking a 4-2 lead the Wildcats fell behind at the 12:25 mark of the first half when Crazy Horse’s Kris Meeter buried a three-pointer, which was followed by a Jaysen Meeter three-pointer to put the Chiefs up 10-6.
After a Kyle Virtue bucket Jaysen Meeter hit another three-pointer to put the Chiefs up 15-10.
That’s when the Wildcats took off.
Virtue, who led the Wildcats with 23 points, scored off a Carter Boyster steal, which was followed by a Rhett Lowe drive for two. The Wildcats took the lead 16-15 on a pair of free throws at the 6:35 mark, and grew the lead to 20-15 after a Boyster basketball of an offensive rebound and a Tennyson basket off a Sawyer Schramm assist, the latter play causing Crazy Horse to take a timeout.
The timeout did little to stem the Wildcat onslaught, however, as Virtue grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, and scored again off a pass from Tennyson to put the Wildcats on top 25-17 with 1:20 left in the first half.
When they weren’t scoring Tennyson and Virtue were dominating the boards, as the ’Cats held a 39-27 rebounding advantage in the game, with Tennyson grabbing 14 and Virtue 11. The Chiefs were repeatedly held to only one shot on their offensive end.
“Our game plan was to keep (the Meteers) in front of us. We thought that was going to pose some problems for us,” Kelley said. “At the same time, we wanted to limit them to one shot. That was huge, keeping them to one shot.”
The Wildcats picked up where they left off in the second half, with Tennyson scoring off a lob and Lowe burying another three-pointer to stake Custer to a 32-19 lead.
The Chiefs tried once more to make a run, as Brian Yellow Elk hit a three-pointer, but that was answered by a Tennyson basket on which he was fouled and made the free throw, followed by Virtue doing the same thing on Custer’s next possession as the ’Cats continued to bully the Chiefs in the pant. Moments later when Tennyson laid the ball in on a fast break the Wildcats had taken a 47-26 lead and taken what was very much a pro-Crazy Horse crowd in a  packed Summit Arena at The Monument out of the game.
Tennyson, who had 17 points, was named MVP of the tournament after the game.
“It’s fun to watch what Gage has become. He earned that MVP award,” Kelley said. “That was a total team effort. The bench was into the game, cheering the kids on. They had an impact on the game.”
Schramm and Virtue were also named to the all-tournament team at the conclusion of the tournament.
To reach the tournament championship the Wildcats had to over a 21-point deficit against the Todd County Warriors, including a 37-20 halftime deficit.
Kelley said he made a “poor coaching decision” at the outset of that game, starting in man to man defense, which he said led to the Falcons “lighting up” the Wildcats.
“They came out on fire,” he said. “We took quick shots, picked up a lot of too us a while to settle down. We were just rushing stuff.”
Tennyson in particular was plagued by foul issues in the game, picking up four in the first half on the way to easily his poorest game of the tournament.
The Falcons had some bad luck strike when their top player, Terrance Eastman, suffered an injury and had to leave the game. The Wildcats started to press and force Falcon turnovers, which in turn sparked the comeback.
“We told them if we an get (the lead) under 10 by the 10 minute mark, we would be OK,” Kelley said.
The Wildcats did even better, and had the lead whittled to eight with 12 minutes left in the game.
“You could just see the confidence growing in the kids,” Kelley said.
With Tennyson in foul trouble it was two freshmen who came to the rescue, as Virtue poured in 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Lowe had the best game of his young career with 20 points.
At the end of the 62-59 win, the Wildcats had four freshman and junior Quade Parker on the floor.
Last Thursday the team opened bracket play against McLaughlin, which featured Lane Lawrence, a guard Kelley said was the focus of Custer’s defense. The previous evening he had scored 30 of the Mustangs’ 47 points. Custer limited him to 12 on four of 14 shooting in the ’Cats’ 59-44 win.
“I thought we did a great job defensively as a team. We did revert to matchup defense and created difficult scoring opportunities for them,” Kelley said. “He had to work for all 12 points.”
Tennyson led the team in scoring with 20 points, with Virtue adding 13 and Schramm 12. Tennyson also grabbed 10 rebounds.
In Custer’s 74-58 loss to Lower Brule last Wednesday, Kelley said the team battled for three-quarters of the game (they trailed by only one at half and led by as much as six in the second half) but saw its offense go cold as Lower Brule’s heated up.
“It was a frustrating night to lose that, but as we look back we probably grew more from that game than any other,” Kelley said. “We just couldn’t stop the bleeding at time. We didn’t play defense. they scored at will.”
Lower Brule had no answer for Tennyson, however, as he scored a game-high 30 points on 12 of 14 shooting, including not missing a shot the entire first half.
Overall, Kelley said, coming out of the tournament with a 3-1 record was more than he could have hoped for, while also realizing the team still has much to work on.
“We’re going to face teams that know more about us. But this is a huge confidence boost moving forward,” he said. “We have to go back to work and do what we need to do to be successful at the end of the year.”
The Wildcats next play Dec. 28-29 at the annual Chadron (Neb.) Rotary Holiday Classic, where they will tangle with host Chadron in the opening round of the four-team tournament.
“They are the same team that beat us last year, basically,” Kelley said. “They are good athletes, and big.”

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