BILLINGS — One team is looking to win its third consecutive state championship. The other is trying to exorcise its title-game demons.

Isn’t it fitting that Arlee and Manhattan Christian will again go toe to toe for all the Class C marbles?

That’s the scenario after a dramatic state semifinal round Friday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. Two-time defending champion Arlee, a 71-62 winner over Chinook, will play Manhattan Christian, a 40-36 victor against Melstone, in the State C title game for the third straight year.

Arlee prevailed in the first two meetings. But Manhattan Christian defeated the Warriors in the Western division title game, which gives them a different level of expectation heading into Saturday night.

“It just feels different. This team, we’ve got what it takes,” said Eagles standout Caleb Bellach, who scored 13 hard-earned points in the win over Melstone. “We’re confident going in. I believe in my guys and we believe in ourselves. It’s going to be a fun night.”

Bellach described the previous two championship-game losses to Arlee as “devastating,” but Manhattan Christian (25-0) almost didn’t get its chance.

Melstone, with its slow-down approach, took the air out of the ball in an effort to slow the pace. It worked for most of the game — until Bellach scored eight consecutive points, forced a turnover and took a charge to swing the momentum in the fourth quarter.

In a late adjustment, Manhattan Christian switched to a trapping-style defense they appropriately refer to as “NASCAR” to get things moving. A three-point play by Josiah Amunrud eventually gave the Eagles a 35-31 advantage with 2:36 left and they never relinquished the lead.

“That’s what they do. They slow it down, and we like to get out and run,” said Bellach, a Montana State signee. “They were being deliberate and they weren’t looking to attack at all. We wanted to speed them up and get them going. That was a momentum changer trying to speed them up, and it worked.”

With the Eagles leading by two, Melstone star Brody Grebe stole the ball with 26 seconds remaining. But on the ensuing possession Grebe, who finished with 16 points, lost the ball and the Broncs (24-2) turned it over. Bellach and Sam Leep made four foul shots from there to ice it.

Manhattan Christian won despite shooting just 28 percent.

“They’ve played in two state title (games) and we haven’t,” said Melstone coach Jason Grebe, whose team will face Scobey in a loser-out game on Saturday. “I thought we had them on their heels for most of the night. They shot 28 percent and won. That doesn’t happen very often.

“It’s hard to swallow, but you learn from adversity. You bounce back. Let’s just try to get third place.”

Arlee 71, Chinook 62

There’s a chip on the collective shoulders of the Arlee Warriors, and they proved it again in crunch time Friday night.

Greg Whitesell scored 29 points and Lane Johnson added 16 points and five assists as Arlee overcame Chinook. The Warriors came into the tournament as self-described underdogs after losing to Manhattan Christian in the Western division title game and having to survive a challenge game against Twin Bridges just to make to state.

Underdogs or not, they’re nothing if not seasoned: The Warriors (24-2) hit 21 of 27 free throws in the second half to move on to their fourth consecutive championship game. In fact, they didn’t even make a field goal in the game’s final 5:27 but still managed to prevail. The game was won at the charity stripe.

“Those free throws are very important to close out games,” said Johnson, a senior who made 11 of 13 foul shots. “We’re all good free throw shooters in my mind. I just think that when we get to the line we’re going to make them in pressure moments."

Whitesell made 8 of 10 from the line, but also controlled Arlee’s fast pace that allowed it to take an 11-point lead late in the second quarter.

Nevertheless, Chinook (25-1) didn’t go away. On the strength of Cord Schneider’s prowess down low — he matched Whitesell with 29 points — the Sugarbeeters fought back to tie the game 43-43 at the end of the third. Hunter Neibauer’s steal and shot at the buzzer knotted the score.

Coach Mike Seymour said the 11-point deficit was the largest the Sugarbeeters have faced all year. Despite crawling back, they could never take the lead. 

A key moment occurred late in the fourth when, trailing by three points, Chinook was unable to corral a rebound after Arlee’s Cody Tanner missed two free throws. The Warriors got to the ball instead. Tanner was fouled again, and this time he made both tries from the line to extend the lead.

“Any time that you’ve been in that position before it gives you confidence. And they’ve been in that position four years in a row now,” said Chinook coach Mike Seymour, who was forced to sit guard Isaac Bell for long stretches due to foul trouble.

“Hats off to them. They’re a good squad. The Whitesell kid? My goodness. What a tough player to guard. And they shot free throws really well.”

While Arlee marches on, Chinook dropped into a Saturday morning loser-out game against Fairview.

Said Johnson: “It was a battle. That’s a good team. They’ve got good players. Isaac Bell, Cord Schneider … those guys are tough. I had faith in my teammates. We’re just happy that we made it back.”

Fairview 69, Hays-Lodgepole 35

Fairview fell short in a tight first-round game against Manhattan Christian on Thursday but bounced back Friday with a 69-35 victory over Hays-Lodgepole in a loser-out game.

Alex Schriver scored a tournament-high 30 points to lead the Warriors (22-4), who stayed alive in the consolation bracket. Schriver made 11 of 14 shots and made 7 of 8 free throws. Cody Asbeck added 10 points for Fairview.

Hays-Lodgepole (18-10) bowed out of the tournament while shooting just 28 percent from the floor. Gilbert Snow's 10 points paced the Warriors.

Scobey 74, Plenty Coups 61

A big third-quarter helped push Scobey past Plenty Coups 74-61 in a loser-out contest.

The Warriors (21-5) led 36-33 at halftime but a 17-6 scoring run after the break allowed Scobey (22-1) to pull away. Caden Handran had 17 points and eight rebounds to lead the Spartans.

Brendan Falls Down's 12 points led the way for Plenty Coups.

Email Greg Rachac at greg.rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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