Thunder Ridge vs Rigby girls basketball

Thunder Ridge’s Aspen Caldwell scores in a December matchup with Rigby.

Note: This is the first of a two-part series previewing Tuesday’s 5A District 5-6 tournament championship game between Thunder Ridge and Rigby. This part is from Thunder Ridge’s perspective of the series.

Weeks ago, back in January when Thunder Ridge dropped its second straight game in an uncharacteristic drought, the Titans’ coaches put their heads together. Their team had just fallen to Blackfoot by double digits. Thunder Ridge’s first non-conference loss in more than a calendar year was confounding on several levels.

The coaching staff spawned a potential solution. It started between the ears. Coaches told players to give each other more high-fives during the game, an effort to lift spirits when the game wasn’t going to plan.

“We realized we weren’t doing it enough,” senior forward Paige Clark said.

For such a simple fix, it’s worked wonders. Since the Titans started making conscious efforts to exchange high-fives and sing each other’s praises, they haven’t lost. They’ve won five straight.

Making it six will be their biggest challenge yet.

That’s because Thunder Ridge’s next game is a road date with top-seeded Rigby for the 5A District 5-6 tournament title. That game is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Rigby.

It’s a rematch of last year’s district title game. Same teams, same location, same stakes. Coaches and players spoke highly of the other squad, highlighting their spectacular seasons and reminiscing on feverish matchups in years past.

Still, for Thunder Ridge, something bigger hangs in the balance.

The Titans’ school opened in 2018. Since then, they have gone 0-9 against the Trojans. That includes eight regular-season meetings and last year’s district title loss. Excluding Thunder Ridge’s inaugural season, when the Titans were still establishing themselves, only two of these matchups have been decided by double digits.

This is a rivalry, in other words, even though both teams respect each other.

“We’ve been looking forward to this game since the beginning of the season,” said senior Lauren Davenport, a Boston signee. “We just want to kick them, you know? It’s going to be a hard game. We’re going to have to work for it. It’s not just going to come easy.”

Rigby has captured both meetings this season, of course, but neither came in any convincing way.

The first, back on Dec. 9, smacked of early-season basketball. The Titans missed a few opportunities that would have turned things around, and the Trojans lost turnovers that they usually avoid. Davenport totaled 13 points and guard Kennedy Stenquist added 12, but the hosts couldn’t make up for shooting 25% from the field.

“It was, ‘Who can minimize the turnovers?’” Thunder Ridge coach Jeremy Spencer said after the game. “‘Who can keep things at a low?’”

Then, on Jan. 12, Rigby eked out a 65-60 home win. The Titans had a far better game on offense. Clark (17) and Davenport (14) combined for 31 points.

But Thunder Ridge yielded 22 points in the fourth quarter. Another loss to Rigby. It was the Titans’ first defeat since that Dec. 9 clash.

After awhile, the results become confusing. If these teams are so evenly matched, and they certainly are, why does Rigby keep winning? Since last season, the Trojans are only winning each game, on average, by 6.5 points. What gives?

“When we play Rigby, it comes down to maybe two possessions,” Spencer said. “It could be middle of the second, it could be late in the fourth. They’ve made a couple more plays, and all of the sudden, it’s enough of that cushion and then the clock expires. We’re trying to learn from those two possessions.”

For example, Spencer said, Thunder Ridge lost just three turnovers in its semifinal win over Madison Thursday night. Doesn’t seem like many. Against Rigby, maybe those three lead to easy baskets. Maybe a 3-pointer or two.

The margins are so slim because so little separates these teams.

For that reason, small details zoom into focus. Passes that slip through other teams’ defenses won’t fly against Rigby. Sometimes you can get away with failing to contest a triple. Not so against the Trojans. Everything becomes paramount when the gravity grows heavy.

“Free throws have been big,” Spencer said. “You don’t think that missed free throw in the first quarter is big, until it’s two minutes to go in the fourth and you’re down one. Or you’re up one, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, if I would have hit two more…

“Things like that, everyone has to clean up, and that’s both teams. It comes down to, ‘Who wants to make a play?’

If the Titans are going to make enough to finally dethrone the Trojans, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to remember back to the way they started this winning streak in the first place and finding inspiration off the floor.

For Thunder Ridge, that may be the easiest part of playing Rigby.

“No question,” Spencer said. “When we see Rigby, it’s just like, ‘We want that game.’ If it’s in a tournament somewhere or somewhere else. We just know that’s the monkey we’ve got to get off our back. It just drives the girls. Great team. We’re ready to get it done on Tuesday night.”

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Post Register. Reach him 208-542-6772 and follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.