Laurel-Central boys basketball

Billings Central's Gabriel Penha Dos Santos looks to pass around Laurel's Nick Pasquarello during their game at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark on Saturday.

BILLINGS — Malachi Stewart scored the first points of the second half on an and-one. The Billings Central junior missed the following free throw, which would have tied Saturday’s game against Laurel for the first time since 0-0, but it provided a positive omen for Central.

The Rams tied it up with 5:38 left in the third quarter, and they took their first lead of the game 30 seconds later. Those buckets came in the middle of a big run that helped Central pull away from the Locomotives.

In their first meeting of the season, Central earned a 59-56 win over rival Laurel at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. The Rams improved to 9-6 overall and 3-2 in the Eastern A to lock up the conference’s No. 2 seed.

“We kind of let things get out of hand at the end, but we’ll turn it around,” Stewart said. “We’re still getting better every single day, and every game’s better than the last one, so I think we should peak soon.”

Laurel led by as many as seven points in the first half and carried a 23-20 lead into halftime, thanks to buzzer-beaters from sophomore Emmet Renner (first quarter) and junior Eli Aby.

Stewart’s layup-plus-foul put Central’s train in motion.

“The momentum seemed to shift before that, and that was like a chain reaction,” said Stewart, who credited his team’s defense for turning the tide.

A 3-pointer from Stewart put the Rams up 35-25, extending their run to 15-2. They won the quarter 16-4 and entered the fourth up 36-27.

Laurel scored more points in the fourth quarter (29) than they did in the first three, but a large chunk of that total came in the final two minutes, when the Locos trailed by as many as 10 points and were desperate for quick buckets.

Senior Gabriel Penha Dos Santos led Central with 14 points, and Stewart added 13. Aby and teammate Colter Bales each scored a game-high 17 points, and fellow Laurel junior Nick Pasquarello added 10.

"We’ve gotta take care of some little things," said Laurel coach Paul Barta. "They’re a team we can beat, but we’ve gotta be more patient."

The Locos won their first four games of the season and had a 7-3 overall record on Jan. 24. Losses to Lewistown, Hardin, Billings Skyview and Livingston dropped them to .500 overall and 0-4 in Eastern A play going into the Central game. Saturday’s loss increased their losing streak to five games.

Central had lost three of four games entering Saturday. But unlike the Locos, the Rams won both of their games against Livingston this season and almost beat top-ranked Hardin, falling in double overtime at the Metra on Jan. 24.

The Rams only have three Class A losses: two to Hardin, and one at Havre on Dec. 14. They lost twice to Billings West (No. 2 in the 406mtsports.com Class AA rankings) and once to West’s Eastern AA rival Billings Senior.

"Our expectations are through the roof. They know that I'm not going to accept anything else, and I'm not going to give them an inch to make mistakes that I don't believe they should be making," Central coach Jim Stergar said, referring to his players. "We're gonna work out our kinks. This is where we do it, right here."

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

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