Coach Nick Mayer had to wait a couple days for his birthday present, but it was worth the wait.
His Vermillion Tanagers laid the Region 4A basketball championship in his lap Tuesday night in Beresford, and for his trouble he and they get a 900-mile round trip to Spearfish.
The Tanagers took charge of Harrisburg early and kept a defensive noose around the Tigers' necks all night long, tightening it to fatal proportions in the fourth quarter, on their way to a 42-31 victory.
Vermillion will take its 18-4 record all the way west for the start of the state Class "A" tournament next Thursday at the Young Center on the Black Hills State University campus. And even that may be a good omen – it was there that Vermillion won the state title five years ago.
"I am so proud of these kids," Mayer said after the regional crown was secured. "It was a hard-fought battle. Harrisburg was physical and got after us."
The Tigers may have been able to shut down Vermillion's vaunted three-point shooting attack from the perimeter, but the Tanagers adjusted necessarily.
"Their defense made us struggle at times, but we settled down and took care of the ball," Mayer said. "Our defense had a lot to do with the fact their offense struggled."
Vermillion held a 33-21 lead heading into the final eight minutes. While that was a good thing, there was still the nagging memory of a similar situation two weeks earlier. That night Harrisburg made a spirited fourth-quarter rally that came perilously close to catching the Tanagers. But not on this night!
Probably realizing time was their enemy, the Tigers began taking quick shots in the fourth quarter, none of them finding the mark. Kelly Amundson was working the defensive boards like a demon. By the time 2 1/2 minutes had expired, nobody had scored – a point in Vermillion's favor.
Amundson's patented spin move out of the lane toward the hoop worked again with 5:36 left, and the Tanagers were up by 14.
It wasn't till the 4:40 mark of the final stanza that Harrisburg scored on a pair of Hailey Halling free throws. But no Tiger would even touch the ball for the next 1:34 as the Tanagers began to kill the clock. Besides that, at the 3:40 mark, Beth Szymonski took advantage of a teammate's screen, scored and fouled. It was 37-21, and though she missed the subsequent free throw, Szymonski snared the rebound, gaining more possession time.
A traveling call gave the ball back to Harrisburg at 3:06, but the Tigers missed a three-point shot, and Szymonski got the rebound again. On this possession Josie Huber added a free throw. Next trip down the floor, Blair Gilkyson snared the rebound, and time was fleeting for Harrisburg's hopes.
Unable to score from the field for all but the final 90 seconds of the quarter, Harrisburg did get four field goals in that last 1 1/2 minutes, but at the same time Gilkyson and Huber sank two free throws each. The Tigers got no closer than nine with 16 seconds left, and by that time the buses were warming up.
Evidence of how stringent the Tanager defense was is the fact that their three leading scorers, Alex Johnson, Brittany Blakney and Morgan Beaner, who had led the Tigers in scoring in the two previous meetings between these teams, were held to a total of six points. Harrisburg's only double-figure scorer was 5'10" sophomore forward Halling with 17, and six of those came in the final 90 seconds when they were of little consequence. Halling had 15 of her points in the second half, and she accounted for all but five of her team's points in that half.
A Szymonski three-pointer and six Amundson points got the Tanagers onto an early roll. It was 14-6 after a quarter. Two classic spin-move layups by Amundson and a trey by Val Robinson started the second quarter, and it was 21-6. Then both offenses began to struggle. The Tanagers, for example, went five minutes without scoring until Lexi Regnerus' running jumper in the last five seconds sent the Big Red to the intermission with a 23-11 lead.
Each team scored 10 points in the third stanza. While the Tanagers were having trouble finding the nets, at the same time their defense and rebounding were keeping Harrisburg at bay.
Two of the game's biggest baskets came when the Tigers were within 10 at 23-13. Szymonski blocked a Tiger shot at one end and scored a badly-needed field goal at the other. She again got a block on defense, and this time Amundson rebounded her own missed shot and scored on a putback, making it 27-13. The teams exchanged buckets for the rest of the period, giving the Tanagers their 33-21 edge with a quarter to go.
Amundson with 16 and Szymonski with 10 led the VHS scorebook. Huber had seven, Regnerus four, Robinson three and Gilkyson two. In the absence of a plethora of three-point baskets – VHS had only two in this game – the Tanagers maintained their free-throw accuracy, making 12 of 15.
Mayer deflected post-game praise to his players, saying their work as far back as last summer and throughout this school year are the factors in their success. He also praised his coaching team of Lori Jerred, J.J. Heyden and Jasmine Mosley.
The Tanagers' four losses in 22 games came at the hands of West Central twice, Parkston and Wagner. When Vermillion's girls arrive in Spearfish next week, only one of those clubs will be joining them there.