CASPER – The weight has been lifted. The wait is over.
It had been five years since Cheyenne East made it past the state quarterfinals. East was bounced to the consolation side of the bracket each of the last two seasons, didn’t qualify for the state tournament in 2015-16 and suffered more first-round frustration the season before.
The current senior class was in junior high the last time East made it to the state semifinals.
Erik Oliver and Tanner Muchmore have never forgotten the history that has held their program back for the last handful of years.
They made sure the current trend ended as soon as possible Thursday afternoon, jumping out to a sizable first-half lead en route to a 79-36 victory over Star Valley in a Class 4A quarterfinal at Casper College’s “Swede” Erickson Thunderbird Gym.
“That’s a big win,” said Oliver, who posted a game-high 18 points, half of which came during the first half. “I haven’t done it. It’s a weight off my shoulder and a monkey off my back. We’ve still got a lot of work to do (today), and we play the winner of two good teams.”
After last week’s 4A East Conference Regional final loss to Sheridan, first-year East coach Rusty Horsley identified a few areas in which his team had to improve prior to the state tournament. Horsley stressed finishing possessions, rebounding and converting more opportunities with a clean look at the rim.
East (22-3 overall) was noticeably more efficient in all three facets Thursday, which produced a lead that bled to as many as 19 points in the first half.
“Those first games are tough,” Horsley said. “Star Valley’s a good, tough group of kids, so you never know what to expect. It’s really good for these kids, and I’m really happy for these seniors to get past that first round and the jitters are out a little bit.”
Led by its ferocious press defense, combined with the athleticism and shooting prowess of its roster, East blended the right ingredients together over an overpowered Star Valley club.
Muchmore was, perhaps, the biggest factor in the first half for the T-Birds.
A steal, drive and finish by the 6-foot guard bumped the T-Birds ahead 15-5 with 2 minutes, 23 seconds to play in the first quarter. He then drained a 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the frame to push the margin to 22-7. The T-Birds standout ended the first half with nine points, three assists and three steals.
“I’m just starting to realize my time’s running out. I’ve got two more games (left),” Muchmore said. “Just leave everything out there. I don’t want to be 30 years old (and) regretting it.”
East shot better than 53 percent from the floor, won the rebounding battle and forced nine turnovers, which directly translated to 11 easy points and eventually a 36-20 lead at the intermission.
“We’re just athletic (and) shot it well and did a lot of good things well on the floor,” Horsley added. “Our kids stayed composed.”
Star Valley didn’t go quietly, though.
The Braves generated some life and a sliver of momentum in the second half. Leaning on the 3-ball, the Braves narrowed the gap to 12 after a Taylor Horsley 3 midway through the third quarter.
“You’ve got to give Star Valley credit; they hit a few big shots to keep it (close),” Rusty Horsley said. “We’d stretch it to 17, 19, (and) they’d hit a few 3s and get it back to 12, and (we) couldn’t pull away. And you’ve got to give our kids credit, too, because they just kept pushing.”
Perhaps foreshadowing what he could provide in a rematch against Sheridan in the state final, East senior Onyx Jackson took over in the second half. He finished with 15 points. Thirteen of those came in the second half, 11 in the fourth quarter alone off of power drives through the lane.
East takes on Casper Kelly Walsh in a 4A semifinal at 7:30 p.m. today at Casper Events Center.
“It really was just a big momentum and confidence boost for me and my team for whenever they need me to step up, then I can step up,” Jackson said. “I’ve never been to state, ever, for basketball. I visited last year as a manager, but to actually play in it and get past the first round is great feeling. Hopefully we can keep doing that and make it to Saturday and the championship and take it home.”
EAST 79, STAR VALLEY 36
Star Valley...............................................................7 13 13 3 – 36
Cheyenne East.....................................................22 14 16 27 – 79
Star Valley: Nerrell 2-8 1-1 6, Jeske 0-3 0-0 0, Horsley 1-6 2-2 5, Cazier 3-6 0-0 8, J. Erickson 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 0-1 0-0 0, Lawson 0-2 0-0 0, Shaw 2-7 1-2 5, Thompson 0-2 4-4 4, M. Erickson 3-4 0-1 8, H. Erickson 0-5 0-1 0, Jenkins 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 11-47 8-10 36.
Cheyenne East: X. McCord 2-4 0-0 4, Rayl 0-1 0-0 0, Muchmore 4-8 0-2 9, Pope 1-1 1-2 3, D. McCord 4-6 1-2 9, Buell 4-7 3-4 13, Micheli 0-1 0-0 0, Aumiller 2-5 0-0 4, Oliver 7-10 2-2 18, Clark 0-0 2-2 2, Colgan 1-2 0-0 2, Jackson 6-8 3-4 15. Totals: 31-53 12-18 79.
3-pointers: Star Valley 6-24 (Merrell 1-4, Jeske 0-1, Horsley 1-4, Cazier 2-4, J. Erickson 0-2, Lawson 0-1, Shaw 0-2, Thompson 0-2, M. Erickson 2-2, H. Erickson 0-1, Jenkins 0-1); East 5-12 (Muchmore 1-2, Buell 2-4, Micheli 0-1, Aumiller 0-1, Oliver 2-4). Rebounds: Star Valley 22 (Merrell 4); East 40 (Oliver 9). Assists: Star Valley 7 (Shaw 2, M. Erickson 2); East 11 (Muchmore 4). Turnovers: Star Valley 15 (Merrell 4); East 11 (D. McCord 4). Blocks: Star Valley 0; East 8 (D. McCord 3). Steals: Star Valley 7 (Jeske 3); East 10 (Muchmore 3, Buell 3). Team fouls: Star Valley 13, East 12.