GREAT FALLS – Billings Central’s win in the final girls' game of the first day meant that all four Eastern A teams advanced to the semifinals at the 2019 State A girls basketball tournament at the Four Seasons Arena. The Rams defeated Butte Central 46-35.
But it was the Maroons that actually got going first. They jumped out to a 11-7 lead after one. Once the Rams' shots started falling though, they had tied it up with six minutes remaining in the second. From there, they never trailed.
“Butte Central is a scrappy team. Meg (Murphy) does a great job with them and you have to respect every opponent at the state tournament,” Billings Central coach Jetton Ailes said. “Kind of got a little bit of a slow start, but the girls responded well and did the things we asked them to do.”
Isabelle Erickson scored 16 to lead the Rams and Olivia Moten-Schell earned a double-double of 13 points, 11 rebounds.
“Three months ago if you had told me we’d be on the floor and have a chance to beat this team, I’d have told you you’re crazy,” Butte Central coach Meg Murphy said. “These kids battled and I’ll tell you what, Tricia Joyce just didn’t back down from any 5-9, 5-11, 6-0 kid. She took the ball right at them and I’m proud of my kids.”
The Maroons kept chipping away in spite of a size disadvantage, much like they have throughout the season. Joyce scored 18 to lead all scorers.
“It’s probably been one of my most rewarding years as a coach. Watching them play Columbia Falls the first game of the year, I knew we were in for a tough season, but every day I came back to practice, these kids were resilient and they got better each day,” Murphy said.
“Not every team gets to the state tournament and I feel like we represented the Western conference as well as anybody did today… They’re the kids that just keep on going and we survive to play another day and that’s how they look at it.”
Butte Central will face Browning to see which team is eliminated from the tournament.
Meanwhile Billings Central will take on familiar opponent Hardin who they split with during the regular season.
“It’s a lot of fun to be here, but you have to step up to the next level playing in that (semifinal) game so we just got to handle the pressure a little bit, take care of the basketball and execute in the half court,” Ailes said.
Hardin 71, Browning 29
Directly prior to the Hardin and Browning girls taking the floor, their boys counterparts matched up leading to the loudest and most energetic atmosphere of the opening day of the State A basketball tournament. So it’s understandable that it took a bit for both teams to settle in before Hardin ultimately rolled to a 71-29 victory.
Not that they’re complaining.
“(Our crowd is) just like a sixth-man for these guys and they feed off it,” Hardin coach Cindy Farmer said. “And they feed off the boys, so yes, the boys playing ahead of us and then us going right in there so definitely the crowd and the energy there helps.”
While there was only a two-point difference at the end of the first quarter, the Bulldogs’ press and defense limited Browning to just four points in the second quarter and they ran out to a 21 point advantage at halftime.
“It’s what we’ve been working on all season is our full court press,” Hardin’s Marie Five said.
Browning struggled to contain Five down low who finished with 22 to lead the Bulldogs.
“Once she catches it inside with one person on her, she’s going to create something,” Farmer said.
Browning ran back onto the court after halftime as the buzzer sounded and at first was able to gain some momentum, but couldn’t sustain it. They were led by Dulci Skunkcap with 10 points and Chalissa Kipp with five.
“We wanted to go 32 minutes at high intensity and we did,” Farmer said. “We had a little let-down at the very beginning of the third quarter, but then they got right back in it so we just got to keep doing that.”
With the win, the Bulldogs advance to face a familiar opponent in Billings Central in an all-Eastern A semifinal. The two teams split during the regular season.
Havre 62, Libby 28
Libby stayed close throughout the first half, but the defending champions from Havre kept tightening down defensively in the second half and earned the first-round win 62-28 over the Loggers.
The Blue Ponies limited the Loggers to eight second-half points, allowing just a single one in the fourth quarter alone, while they racked up 37 to create space and advance to the State A semifinals.
“I just liked how when our kids get up and guard, the basketball seems to get moving a little bit and the kids play a little bit harder together,” Havre coach Dustin Kraske said.
So after leading by 25-20 at halftime, Kraske told his team they needed to play with more energy in the second half and they responded. The Blue Ponies went on a seven-point run in the first minute and a half of the third quarter before Libby called a timeout.
“In the second half, mental fatigue and physical fatigue came in and that’s the way Coach Kraske has designed that team to beat you down over the course of the full 32 minutes,” Libby coach Wally Winslow said. “Our guards can handle that kind of thing for awhile, but eventually you make a mistake and then one mistake leads to another and next thing you know it’s a six-point run and it starts getting out of touch pretty quick.”
Libby senior Jayden Winslow led the Loggers with 14 points. Winslow is one of six seniors who lead a Logger team that hasn’t been to the state tournament since 2011. They will face a familiar Northwest A opponent in Columbia Falls in the elimination round.
Meanwhile, Havre advances to play fellow Eastern A opponent Laurel in the semifinal round.
“It’s not like they’re new to us because they’re in the Eastern A and the Eastern A is kind of a grind and there’s some very good teams over there so we’ll watch a little tape and come up with something and play basketball so it’ll be fun,” Kraske said.
Laurel 58, Columbia Falls 29
Laurel limited Columbia Falls to just two points in the first quarter and never looked back from a 23-2 lead as they defeated the Wildkats 58-29 in the Class A girls basketball tournament opener Thursday morning from the Four Seasons Arena.
“I liked how we were locked in defensively which allowed us to play with more freedom and comfort on the offensive side,” Laurel coach Pat Hansen said. “It was definitely huge for us to hit some shots early in the game, especially against such a well-coached matchup team that (Columbia Falls coach Cary) Finberg puts on the floor.”
The Locomotives shot 6-of-9 from the three point line in the first half and the taller Wildkats appeared frustrated by missed shots and a Locomotive defense that forced turnovers and took advantage of transition.
Mya Hansen led Laurel with 12 points and Maeson Cotter had nine as they were not only able to get the whole roster in the game, but ten players contributed points. With the win, the Locomotives advanced to the semifinal where they will face Havre.
“They came out and hit a couple shots early on and that kind of fed into their defense and we were on our heels from the start and it just snowballed on us,” Finberg said.
Columbia Falls was able to use their height in the second half, but were unable to close the deficit to less than 20. A bright spot for the Wildkats happened with 1:15 remaining when Kimberly Peacock removed the teal medical mask covering her mouth and nose and entered the game to a warm reception from the crowd.
“The start of the year, she couldn’t even play five-on-five,” Finberg said. “She was four or five feet from the basket and could hardly get the ball up to the rim and now she’s progressed to where she can play two, three, four minutes at a time; she’s extended her shot out to 17-18 feet.”
The Wildkats' Trista Cowan scored eight and Josie Windauer scored seven to top the scoring for Columbia Falls.
Columbia Falls will face Libby in the elimination round.