BILLINGS — The Billings Central and Laurel boys basketball teams played another close game. This time, the Rams came out on top, upending rival Laurel 47-46 for the Eastern A Divisional title on Saturday night at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.

It's the second divisional championship in three seasons for No. 4-ranked Central (13-3), which lost to the No. 3 Locomotives 46-40 on Jan. 15 at the Metra and 42-40 on Feb. 18 at Laurel.

“It’s good to finally beat them this year,” Laurel junior Brock Blatter said. “But our dream’s not done.”

On Saturday, Laurel (12-4) led 44-40 with about five minutes left and 46-43 with less than a minute to go. Central senior Marcus Wittman made a layup to make it 46-45, and Laurel senior Colter Bales missed the front end of a one-and-one on the following possession. Rams senior Nate Sasich missed a jumper with 15 seconds left, but Blatter got the offensive rebound and put it back up for the go-ahead bucket.

“Coach Connor (Cunningham and I), we work on rebounding drills,” Blatter said. “I just saw the ball go up, went and jumped and got it.”

The Locos had a chance with about nine seconds left, but Wylee Schnetter missed a driving layup in traffic, fellow senior Jace McNeil was wayward on his put-back attempt and the ball ended up in the hands of Central senior Junior Brackenridge as time expired.

“That was a crazy last nine seconds. Longest nine seconds ever,” Blatter said. “It was kind of a blur. I don’t know. Just so many shots going up. I was trying to crowd the ball, couldn’t get a rebound and then it finally got tipped out. Sigh of relief.”

The finish encapsulated the back-and-forth nature of the entire game.

An 18-6 run turned a 15-9 deficit into a six-point lead for the Rams late in the second quarter. Laurel quickly erased a 29-24 halftime deficit, only for Central to build another five-point lead and go into the fourth quarter up 40-37.

The Locos began the fourth on a 7-0 run, which ended on a 3-pointer from Central junior Cayden Merchant with 4:14 to go. McNeil put Laurel up 46-43, and the Locos had the ball with about a minute and a half left, but a missed layup gave Wittman and Blatter opportunities to play hero.

“I never feel out of it with these guys,” Brackenridge said.

Blatter scored 13 points (6 of 10 from the field) and grabbed seven rebounds, Brackenridge had 10 points (3 of 3), senior Malachi Stewart had nine (4 of 7) and Wittman added eight points (3 of 4, 2 of 2 on 3-pointers), four rebounds and three assists.

Schnetter led the Locos with 13 points (5 of 8, 3 of 5 on 3-pointers), and Bales finished with 12 points (5 of 12 FG), six rebounds and four assists.

“Every time we meet, it’s a close game going down the stretch,” said Laurel coach Tony Trudnowski. “Obviously, we’re disappointed to lose, but it’s a great rivalry.”

Laurel had won three straight games against Central, dating back to a 55-47 loser-out victory on March 13 at the coronavirus-shortened State A tournament. The Rams have now beaten every team they’ve played — they opened divisional play Thursday with a 57-31 win over Lewistown, which won 68-61 on Jan. 19 at Central.

“Even if we’d lost this one tonight, I’d feel like we were going to win the next three,” Brackenridge said. “It’s the biggest time of the year, and I think we’re ready.”

Lewistown and defending state co-champion Hardin clinched the Eastern A’s other two state tournament berths (the Eagles beat the Bulldogs 66-60 in overtime Saturday for the divisional consolation trophy). The State A will be played at Four Seasons Arena at Montana ExpoPark in Great Falls next Wednesday through Saturday, a week earlier than usual.

“I was looking forward to an extra week to prep for teams, but we don’t have that, and neither do they,” said Central coach Jim Stergar. “I like our chances just because we’re so deep.”

Laurel will open state play at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Western A three seed Ronan, while Central will face fourth-seeded Butte Central, the other defending state co-champion, at 11 a.m. Thursday. Butte Central beat the Rams in the first round at last season's state tourney.

Hardin will play top-seeded Dillon at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, and Lewistown will face second-seeded Polson at 9 a.m. Thursday.

“We could meet those guys again for a fourth time, and that’s the only time that matters,” Stergar said of Laurel. “Divisional championships are good, but they’re not great. The big one’s next week.”

For coverage of the rest of the day's tournament games, visit the Full Court Press.

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

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