GREAT FALLS — The Billings Central Rams know at this point in the season no team should be overlooked. At last year’s Class A state basketball tournament, Central entered as a four-seed but knocked off a top seed in the first round.
Danger, the Rams know, lurks in every matchup. So they started fast Thursday night and never slowed down, capping the first day of this year’s state tourney with a 65-43 win over Frenchtown at Four Seasons Arena.
Fresh off their Eastern A Divisional title – well, not really fresh, since that was nearly two weeks ago – the Rams received 21 points and 10 rebounds and seven 3-pointers combined from Cade Herriford and Seth Sasich to reach the semifinals.
The Rams, who have reached the state title game each of the last three seasons but failed to win any, will play Hamilton at 8 p.m. on Friday. It’s the same Hamilton (20-4) team the Rams (20-2) knocked off in the first round last season.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board, even though we’ve looked at hours of film,” Rams coach Jim Stergar said, not tipping his hand when asked what he thought the key matchups would be. “We’ll figure something out.”
The Rams had it all figured out in the first round. They led 32-17 by halftime and built the lead to its largest, 26 points, late in the game.
Herriford made four 3-pointers for 13 points, and Sasich finished with 9 points on three 3-pointers.
“Energy is everything, and that’s a good way to get it started, and to keep it going like we did was really nice,” said Gray, who was 8 of 16 from the floor. “I feel like we were pretty salty. They had a couple nice runs in the third quarter there, but other than that I feel like we played really, really well today and with a lot of energy.”
Frenchtown didn’t have a player in double digits, and Stergar praised the defensive play of Chrishon Dixon. Dixon held Frenchtown’s leading scorer Cade Baker to six points. Mason Pyron led Frenchtown with 9 points.
“We’re not perfect, we have a long ways to go,” Stergar said. “We say that we have a lot of potential on our team, and I think we do, but that basically means we haven’t done anything yet.”
Frenchtown (12-12) plays Livingston (12-11) in a loser-our game Friday at 1:30 p.m.
Hamilton 54, Livingston 51
Hunter Omlid curled to the top of the 3-point line, clapping his hands the whole time, asking for the basketball.
Camron Rothie delivered it to Omlid, who then promptly delivered the final lead change as Hamilton held off pesky Livingston.
Hamilton kept building leads – 7 points, 5 points, 9 points – and had to rebound from a 3-point deficit early in the fourth quarter before finally subduing the Rangers.
But it took a 29-point effort from Omlid, including that final lead-changing 3-pointer with 2:40 left in the game, to do it.
“We have some really good seniors and their leadership really helped us,” Hamilton coach Travis Blome said. “And thank God we got 22 on our team.”
Blome was referring to uniform number of Omlid, who made 10 of 16 shots and scored 11 of his points in the fourth quarter.
“Being a senior leader you just have to do that sometimes,” Omlid said, almost shrugging off his performance. “And we picked it up on the defensive end as a team.”
Brendon Johnson and Mcleod Versland both made three 3-pointers for Livingston, and finished with 23 and 10 points, respectively. John Waddell added 11 for the Rangers, who couldn’t establish a strong enough foothold despite making several runs at the Broncs.
“The guys showed some heart for sure and battled,” Livingston coach Layne Glaus said. “That’s a good team. Well-coached, talented, pretty athletic, so I’m proud of my guys.”
Hardin 69, Browning 59
Hardin coach Andrew Round Face wanted to make sure his team was aware of the situation.
So, in the huddle to start the fourth-quarter, his team leading Browning by one point, Round Face let them know.
“This is the last eight minutes,” Round Face said. “There’s no more next quarter, there’s no more next half. I said, ‘this is it’ and they responded well.”
The defending state champion Bulldogs came up with their best eight minutes of the game, and beat the Indians as fan bases from both teams provided a high-energy, loud atmosphere.
Famous Lefthand scored 30 points for the Bulldogs, 13 in the decisive fourth quarter.
The game was tied 49-49 with 5:40 before Lefthand and the Bulldogs took control, earning a semifinal berth against Butte Central. Over the final 4 ½ minutes, Hardin outscored Browning 16-8 and built the lead to 13 points before Deion Mad Plume’s late 3-pointer.
“We wanted it more as a team,” said Lefthand, who also had a game-high 14 rebounds. “We had to pick it up on defense, get a stop and get a bucket, get a stop and get a bucket, and that’s what we did. Who wants it more now? We wanted it more.”
Trae Hugs added 12 points for Hardin, (20-2), which meets Butte Central (20-4) in a 6:30 p.m. semifinal game Friday.
CJ Smith scored 16 points to lead Browning. Tyree Whitcomb had 15 points and 11 rebounds, and it was his long running 3-pointer just before half that gave the Indians a 36-36 lead at the break.
That turned out to be the high point for Browning (23-3), which will play Laurel (14-9) in a noon loser-out game Friday.
“We get to that point where we can get over the hump, so to speak, and we give it back,” Browning coach Daniel Connelly said. “We’ll take a bad shot or have a blown defensive assignment or a combination of both and let teams right back in. I’ll take the blame for that. That’s on me as a coach to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Butte Central 35, Laurel 24
A grinder? Sure. Ugly? Butte Central basketball coach Brodie Kelly will concede that, too.
So what if the Maroons’ hard-earned victory over Laurel was a game only the winning players, and coach, could love.
“Some people might say it’s ugly,” Kelly said about the game, one if which few openings presented themselves for either side, resulting in long possessions and awkward shots. “I appreciate it. I respect the effort and, you know, people don’t realize how hard it is to concentrate on the defensive end and play with that kind of effort for that long. I actually thought both teams played really good defensively.”
Whatever label you put on it, the result is the same. Butte Central reached the semifinals for the ninth time in 15 years.
Friday’s semifinal against a more up-tempo Bulldogs team could have a decided different look.
“We’ll play whatever the tempo the game is at,” Kelly said. “The formula for us doesn’t change.”
No Butte Central or Laurel player reached double digits. The teams combined for 20 points, total, in the first half, and it took Laurel 19 minutes to score its 10th point.
Matt Simkins had 8 points and Cade Holter 7 for Butte Central, which forced Laurel into 24 percent shooting.
The Locomotives had 14 steals but had just 9 points on 19 Maroons turnovers. Wylee Schnetter scored nine points to lead the Locomotives, and Gaje Leischner and Colter Bales each had 6. Laurel plays Browning in a noon loser-out game Friday.
“The bottom line is we didn’t’ capitalize offensively, Laurel coach Pat Hansen said. “We missed throws early in the game, shot off-balance shots. You can even hold a team lower than 35 points in a game but you’ve got to put some points up and put a little more pressure on their back. We just struggled so bad scoring today.”