Jefferson boys basketball

The Jefferson High boys basketball celebrates after its victory over Whitehall in the consolation Class 5B District tournament. 

BOULDER — Jefferson High boys basketball player Bryce Harrington has waited three long years to get to the divisional tournament because he suffered through a few years where his Panthers fell just short of that quest.

This year, Harrington and his team will get an opportunity to play at Class B Southern Divisionals when they face Huntley Project Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark in Billings.

Earlier in the season, the Panthers defeated Huntley Project in overtime on 57-55 on Dec. 8.

Harrington said he felt his wait to get back to the divisional round of the  postseason was worth the wait as he is one of the team captains who hopes to guide the Panthers to the state tournament.

“It was a long wait, and (going back to divisionals) was my goal at the beginning of the season,” Harrington said. “Our team feels that we have a good group this year, and I am proud of us.”

The Panthers haven’t had an easy road this season with a challenging schedule. Jefferson faced two of the top-rated teams in the polls in Big Timber and Three Forks twice.

“When you play some of the top teams in the state, it can put a real dent in your confidence,” Panthers coach Clint Layng said. “We’ve played Three Forks and Big Timber twice, and Twin Bridges. When you play teams like that, you have to understand how good those teams are and continue to focus on getting better and better as the season progresses.”

Layng said he felt his team is starting to progress, and showcased it when the Panthers toppled Whitehall, a team they lost to twice during the year, in the  district consolation finals last weekend at the Belgrade Events Center.

“I think we just need to play with effort moving forward and have the intensity on defense,” Layng said. “We have to play with constant energy. I’ve been talking about having positive body language, and our bench did a great job (during Districts) of cheering guys on. We’ve been shooting with confidence, knocking down shots and playing hard.”

Layng said he felt playing some of the more difficult competition will help his Panthers as they attempt to progress and move onto an Class B state title bid.

“We had our hands full playing Big Timber and Three Forks in our district,” Layng said. “I don’t think we are going to face anyone better than them (moving forward). I am proud of the kids for sticking through the tough times, tough spots and bad losses. Coming into divisionals, we are playing with much confidence, and I am proud of them.”

Harrington said he felt the team has bought into the concept of playing team basketball as the Panthers struggled against some of the better competition in the state earlier in the year.

“I think we have started to figure out who we are, and play our best basketball as a team,” Harrington said. “We know if we can get four guys scoring in double digits, that is the key to our success. We lean on our defense, and we are just a hard, scrappy team.”

Jason Blasco is the lead prep sports reporter for the Helena Indepedent-Record and a sports reporter for the network.

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