Hardin holds on to beat Billings Central, 44-41

Hardin players celebrate from the bench after Hardin's Marie Five sank a late free throw at the end of the fourth quarter in a girls Eastern A basketball game against Billings Central at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Saturday.

BILLINGS — A lot can change in a month, as the Hardin girls basketball team can attest.

On Jan. 5, Hardin’s record fell to 6-2 after a 49-43 loss to Billings Central at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. The rivals met at Metra again on Saturday night, and the result flipped.

Hardin, the No. 5 Class A team in the latest 406mtsports.com rankings, used an electric third quarter to rally past No. 2 Central for a 44-41 Eastern A victory, its eighth straight.

“We had a mindset of winning,” said Hardin junior Marie Five.

Neither team scored until Five canned a 3-pointer with 4:40 left in the first quarter. Central answered a couple minutes later with a 3 from sophomore Isabelle Erickson, but it was the Rams’ only made field goal all quarter — Olivia Moten-Schell was fouled as time expired and sunk the subsequent two free throws to cut the deficit to 8-5.

The Rams squandered several open fast break looks early in the first quarter and struggled to get good shots off when they ran their half-court offense. But they opened the second quarter on a 10-0 run and led 17-13 going into the second half.

Hardin came out of the locker room energized and opened the third quarter on a 7-0 run. The Bulldogs maintained their verve all quarter, outscoring the Rams 20-9 and taking a 33-26 lead into the final period.

The Bulldogs started the game slower than coach Cindy Farmer wanted. The intensity arrived immediately in the second half.

“Our theme all year long is, we need to start out aggressive, intense,” Farmer said. “We started doing that today.”

Hardin’s lead grew to 37-30, but Central pulled within two points with 30 seconds left, thanks in part to three straight missed free throws from the Bulldogs after they reached the bonus.

But Hardin made three fouls shots after that point, played solid defense and milked the clock to earn the win.

“This was a big atmosphere created in February. It’s early. It’s not something some kids are used to,” said Central coach Jetton Ailes. “We battled through, had a good first half, but those first four minutes of the second half, they bit us in the butt. We’ve gotta fix that.”

Five scored a game-high 17 points for the Bulldogs (14-2, 8-2). Sophomore Isabella Erickson led Central (12-3, 5-2) with 15 points, while senior Melissa Hanser and junior Olivia Moten-Schell each added 10.

Saturday’s victory came eight days after Hardin earned a 62-47 Eastern A win at Laurel, ranked No. 2 at the time and responsible for the Bulldogs’ only other loss this season (50-41 at Hardin on Dec. 21). The Bulldogs have not lost since the Jan. 5 game against Central.

Last season’s Class A state tournament runner-up looks primed for another deep run in March.

“The whole team is working together, playing together, being unselfish, making the extra pass,” Farmer said. “Every win, especially against Central, Laurel, the top teams in our conference, it gives us a load of confidence.”

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Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores_BG

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