Thunder Ridge Longhorns head coach Darren Grauerholz said admitted surprise afterward about how his team’s strategy worked against the South Central Timberwolves Wednesday night.

Though the two teams were tied three different times, No. 5 seed Thunder Ridge never trailed, knocking off No. 4 seed South Central on the first day of the 1A State Basketball Championships.

Final score: Thunder Ridge 56, South Central 45.

“I thought it’d be closer all the way throughout,” Grauerholz said. “From watching film and stuff though, I really felt like we were going to be the better team as long as we took care of the ball. I’ve got five, six strong girls right now, and that’s been the key the whole year, is you just don’t know who you’re supposed to guard.”

Grauerholz said that’s been one of the “key ingredients” for his team this season.

“We just wanted to make sure Bri didn’t get hot, and we were doing a nice job,” Grauerholz said.

The Bri who Grauerholz was talking about was South Central senior Bri Rutherford, who finished with a team-high 15 points, and she was one the team was familiar with after having lost the third-place game last season to South Central.

Still, it wasn’t a perfect effort for the Longhorns.

“I was a little disappointed at the end of the second quarter because we were getting tired, weren’t getting back defensively, and then I had to take Hardacre out,” Grauerholz said. “We weren’t getting our assignments right, so we let them get about 6 points there that really hurt us going into the locker room. We could have had a 12-point lead and it was only 6.”

Senior Elizabeth Hardacre had a game-high 9 rebounds for the Longhorns.

Junior Brennan Kirchhoff had a game-high 21 points for Thunder Ridge, while senior Layne Pettijohn had 11. Junior Jaden Boden and senior Mariah Stauffer each had 10 for the Longhorns.

Overall, Grauerholz said he has some good young players he thinks are going to be pretty good, but right now his team is not very deep.

Those young players will probably get plenty of time on the floor against the team’s next opponent: Powerhouse Central Plains.

Hardacre was a tough challenge all night for South Central. Seemingly whenever the Timberwolves would drive into the lane and take a shot, she’d be there with a hand on the shot. She finished with six blocks Wednesday night. South Central as a team had two.

Because of what happened last year, Grauerholz said his team was happy to get the draw to play South Central, even despite knowing they’ll play Central Plains Friday.

“We wanted revenge against them from last year,” Grauerholz said. “Like I said, I just really felt like we were going to win this ball game.”

Still, even though his team lost last year, his team took a lot from it, Grauerholz said.

“I’ll tell you what; last year’s game, and that third-place game, taught my guards so much,” Grauerholz said. “And if it hadn’t been for that game, we pry wouldn’t be here, because it taught us how to take care of pressure during our sub-state game. So it’s great to come to these games like this so we can learn how to play and then that’s how you keep that tradition going like Central Plains has right now.”

With the win, Thunder Ridge advances to play Central Plains at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

With the loss, South Central’s season is over.

“We had some people that played pretty nervous, started off pretty timid and that kind of set the tone for the game, and we never really did recover from that the whole game. We played uphill all night long,” South Central head coach Tim Rietzke said. “So you tip your hat to the other team, and we just weren’t solid enough, especially defensively, to get consistent stops. That was our biggest issue.”

That tone of not being aggressive offensively carried over defensively as well.

“If you are not aggressive on one end of the floor, you’re not going to make very good decisions on the other end of the floor, and that’s kind of the situation that we found ourselves in,” Rietzke said. “We just never got in a rhythm the whole night and ended up costing us the ball game.”

Even with the loss, the team finished with an impressive 23-3 overall record.

“If you would have asked me at the beginning of the season, considering the three players that we lost from last year’s team: An All-State player, three All-League players and you said ‘OK you’re going to make the State Tournament and come into it 23-2,’ I’d have said ‘Where do I sign the paper?’” Rietzke said.

It was difficult to look back on the season after the loss, not only because of disappointment from the loss but also because of not feeling like the team maybe played its best or he maybe coached its best or what not, Rietzke said.

“But as you get a little time to reflect on it, you realize these gals had a great season,” Rietzke said. “You just have to have a little bit of perspective, and tonight that’s hard to do for a little while, but a lot of people’d like to trade places with us.”

South Central’s three straight years as SPIAA League Champions and their host of other accomplishments has been great, but there has been a drawback to that, Rietzke said.

“The problem with doing that is sometimes, I think, as a coach and as players you start taking that for granted and all of the sudden you realize well that doesn’t just happen, it takes a lot of work to make that happen,” Rietzke said. “So it’s going to be hard to rebuild after this year because we lose a lot of people, but that’s 1A basketball.”

In total, seven players were listed as seniors on South Central’s roster in the program: Allison Dale, Jordyn Jellison, Kelsey Hackney, Addison Moore, Bri Rutherford and Tyra Snyder.

It’ll be a tough group for the Timberwolves to lose this offseason.

“Bottom line is you don’t have success without good people, and I don’t mean good basketball people, I mean good people, and we were very fortunate to have a good group, no bad apples, no bad attitudes, just a real pleasant group to work with,” Rietzke said. “That’s what I’m going to remember. If you’ve done it for a long time, numbers and the number of wins and so on, that’ll fade pretty quick, but your memories of relationships, the people you were fortunate enough to work with, that’s what you’re going to remembers.”