GREAT FALLS — Well, well, well. Class A boys basketball is back to where it was 12 months ago.
Billings Central and Hardin will contest the state championship game, just like they did a year ago. Not that the two combatants felt it would be any other way.
“After the final buzzer last year, we all walked off the court feeling we would be back here for the same game,” Billings Central coach Jim Stergar said after his Rams used an overwhelming first-half run to beat Hamilton in Friday night’s second tournament semifinal at Four Seasons Arena.
Earlier in the evening, Hardin held off Butte Central 79-73 in a game that was fraught with drama in the final two minutes after the Bulldogs nearly lost all of a double-digit lead.
For the Rams, it’s their fourth consecutive trip to the title game. But no championship trophies have made the trip back to Billings during that run, so the Rams are looking to make one little tweak to the what-was-last-year-is-this-year motif.
“It’s been our goal since freshmen year,” Central senior Chrishon Dixon said of trying to earn a championship. “I’ve been going since freshman year to the state championship game. Now, it’s just time to finish.”
Niki Krause scored 15 points and helped spark a 31-6 Central run in the first half that erased an early 7-0 deficit to Hamilton. After a 4 ½-minute drought to start the game, Joe Byorth finally got the Rams on the board, and Krause then followed with eight straight points, sending Central on its way.
“It just took one, once we got one we kept on rolling,” said Central’s Seth Sasich, who hit three 3-pointers on the game. “Momentum, we talk about that a lot, and I guess just getting the lid off the basket, then they all fell.”
Sam Gray added 11 points for the Rams.
Hamilton was led by Trey Searle, who had 14 points. Tanner Goligoski finished with 12 and Hunter Omlid 10 for the Broncs, who chipped away at what was a 24-point deficit at one point and got it down to 12 with just over two minutes to play.
But that was all the Broncs (20-5) had, and they dropped in a loser-out game Saturday morning at 10:30 against Browning (24-3)
“We thought we’d have to get off to a good start,” Hamilton coach Travis Blome said. “But, I mean, gosh, Billings Central is loaded ... great coach, great players. It was a game where we would have to play really well, and for about 10 minutes we didn’t play very well.”
Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. meeting between the Rams (21-2) and Bulldogs (21-2) adds just another chapter to their rivalry. Hardin beat Billings Central 47-43 in last year’s title game after three previous epic meetings, and the Rams hold a 2-1 edge this season.
So, there are no secrets.
“It’s cool, knowing the two best teams in the state keep going at each other,” Dixon said. “There’s really no game plan at this point.”
Hardin 79, Butte Central 73
Andrew Round Face said the Hardin Bulldogs were excited to be back in the Class A state championship game. The demeanor, the kind of detached way in which the Hardin coach spoke following a semifinal win Friday night, though, made it clear the Bulldogs were processing a variety of emotions.
Maybe a bit of been-there-done-that. A lot of relief. And also a bit of worry.
The Bulldogs get a chance to defend their title after beating Butte Central 79-73, but not before surviving a huge Maroons’ rally and an apparent leg or hip injury to leading scorer Famous Lefthand near the end of the game.
Lefthand, trying to save the ball from going out of bounds with 2:11 left, crumpled to the Four Seasons Arena floor. He had to be helped off the court and was later taken from the bench altogether.
Following the game, Round Face said he had yet to talk to Lefthand, but the concern was obvious. So, too, was the relief. Butte Central whittled what was a 15-point deficit midway through the fourth to just two points with two minutes to play.
But somehow, someway, the Bulldogs hung on.
“We knew they were going to go on a run, so we had to wait for it and sure enough they went on a run,” Round Face said. “I told the boys at halftime this was too good of a team to not to have a run in them. Sure enough they had it and we were just lucky enough to withstand it.”
Hardin didn’t help itself by missing 8 of 16 free throws down the stretch. Trae Hugs, who led Hardin with 32 points and was 15 of 18 from the free-throw line, but all three of those misses came in those critical final minutes.
Even he had a hard time forming answers to questions afterward.
“Sorry,” he kept saying when he’d halt in mid-sentence. “I’m just a little speechless right now. I still have the jitters.”
Butte Central placed four players in double figures, led by Braden Harrington’s 15 points.
Round Face said he told his team before the game they needed to hit the Maroons first. And if they hadn’t, leading by 17 by the middle of the third quarter, who knows how this game would have wound up.
Butte Central coach Brodie Kelly could wonder the same thing. What he can’t question is his team’s combativeness.
“I told our guys, on the scoreboard there’s winners and losers, right?” he said. “But I don’t think there were any losers in that game. I just feel like our guys should be really proud of the way they persevered, came back and fought and should feel good about it.”
The Maroons (20-5) dropped into morning loser-out play against Livingston (13-11) at 10:30 a.m. at Great Falls CMR high school.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs, who received 13 points from Kidd Littlelight and 11 from Lefthand, can hope they feel better about Lefthand’s status by Saturday.
Either way, with or without Lefthand, Round Face said his team knows what is at stake.
“The thing we have to do is keep our mind in the game, just keep our head down and keep working,” Round Face said. “Just withstand every run that’s going to be thrown at us, so we’ll have to be ready for that.”
Livingston 64, Frenchtown 43
Livingston led from start to finish and got 27 points from Brendon Johnson to win a loser-out game over Frenchtown.
Mcleod Versland added 12 points on four 3-pointers and John Waddell had 11 points for the Rangers (13-11), who play again at 10:30 a.m. at CMR High School.
A 9-0 run early in the second quarter push Livingston’s lead to 32-16, and though the Broncs cut the deficit to single digits they could never really close the gap. The Rangers scored the game’s final 11 points.
Cade Baker had 18 points to lead Frenchtown, which finished the season 15-13.
Browning 64, Laurel 59
A late fourth-quarter run helped push the Browning Indians past the Laurel Locomotives in a morning loser-out game.
Tyree Whitcomb hit four 3-pointers and the 6-foot-7 senior finished with 26 points. Riley Spoonhunter added 17 points for the Indians.
Browning scored the game’s first 10 points only to see Laurel respond with a 13-3 run. The Locomotives eventually took a 28-20 lead, but Browning whittled that down to a 33-30 deficit by halftime. The game remained close the rest of the way until the Indians went on a 7-0 run for a 61-52 lead with under two minutes to play.
Levi Taylor led Laurel with 17 points. Wylee Schnetter added 13 and Colter Bales pitched in 10.
Laurel ended its season at 15-10.