BILLINGS — Many basketball teams would lose their best player midway through the third quarter in a one-point battle and lose the game. Few teams are as deep and talented as Hardin.
The Bulldogs not only survived without star senior Famous Lefthand, they thrived.
The No. 1 team in the 406mtsports.com Class A boys basketball rankings rallied past No. 5 Billings Central for a 69-56 win Saturday at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. Hardin (21-0) took the Eastern A Divisional trophy back from the rival Rams (13-8) and earned their second divisional title in three years.
“When Monday came around this week, you could just feel that electric energy” from Hardin’s players, coach Andrew Round Face said. “I think they like that extra pressure of win or go home. They’re thriving on it right now.”
Lefthand made an acrobatic layup with four minutes left in the third quarter to give Hardin a 36-35 lead. The Rocky Mountain College signee fell hard and landed on his right hip, which was already bruised, according to Round Face. Lefthand sat on the floor for a couple minutes before he walked gingerly off the court and to the locker room, where he spent the rest of the quarter. He sat on the bench for the entire fourth.
Hardin’s players and coaches were relieved to learn after the game that Lefthand’s injury wasn’t more serious (he'll be ready in two weeks, Round Face said), but they felt different emotions in the uncertain moments after he exited the game.
“When he’s out there, our confidence is all high. He is one of the best players in the state, if not the best,” said Hardin senior Cayden Redfield. “Not having him out there is really challenging, but once we start playing like a team, with or without him, nobody’s gonna stop us.”
Lesser-known Bulldogs such as senior Peyton Good Luck viewed Lefthand’s injury as a challenge to embrace. Good Luck and Lefthand both finished with 12 points Saturday.
“We all talked to each other, and I said, ‘Step it up. Even though he’s down, keep playing hard,’” Good Luck said. “Our team just stepped up after he left.”
Hardin outscored Central 33-21 after Lefthand’s injury, including a 14-3 run to end the third quarter.
“The second half felt like a whole new game, felt way better. Started to get that same feeling I had my sophomore year,” Redfield said. “It’s a feeling you’re not gonna understand until you’re in a divisional title or state title.”
Hardin beat Central in the state title game two years ago.
Redfield led Hardin on Saturday with 18 points (4 of 11 from the field, 9 of 10 from the free throw line) and six rebounds, and fellow senior Kidd Little Light added 13 points (5 of 6 from the field, 3 of 4 from 3-point range).
Central outshot Hardin from the field (50% to 45.7%), but the Bulldogs committed just three turnovers to Central’s 11.
“Our team goal is seven turnovers a game,” Round Face said. “To have only three turnovers against a good defensive team like this speaks volumes to where we’re at right now.”
Central junior Marcus Wittman scored a game-high 21 points and missed just one shot (8 of 9 from the field, 1 of 1 from 3, 4 of 4 from the line). Fellow junior Malachi Stewart added 12 points (5 of 8 from the field), and senior Gabriel Penha Dos Santos contributed nine points and six rebounds.
Hardin has won all 21 games (and counting) since a 62-44 defeat to Central in last season’s State A title game. The Bulldogs believe they’ll reach the championship game for the third straight year, and Round Face expects to face the Rams once again.
The State A tournament will be played at Metra, beginning on Thursday, March 12 and concluding two days later. Hardin’s tournament opener will be against Polson at 10:30 a.m. that Thursday, and the Rams will face No. 2 Butte Central at 3:30 p.m. the same day.
Livingston 58, Laurel 48
For the second straight season, Livingston beat Laurel in the Eastern A Divisional boys basketball third-place game.
Livingston senior Brendon Johnson led all players with 29 points and eight rebounds on Saturday at Metra.
The Rangers (16-6) and Locomotives (13-10) clinched Class A state tournament berths hours before the third-place game. Livingston beat Lewistown and Laurel knocked off Havre to each secure a state spot for the second straight season.
“Their effort, it was on them. Coaches only handle so much of it,” Livingston coach Layne Claus said of his players. “Just proud of the way they worked and came together, especially after that loss (Friday to Hardin in the semifinals).”
In the first round at state, Livingston will face Frenchtown, while fourth-seeded Laurel will take on Browning.
With the most important mission (getting to state) out of the way, the Rangers and Locos could have been excused if they took it easy during the third-place game. It was the third game in less than 24 hours for both teams, and it was the fifth in four days for Laurel, which beat Sidney in a de facto play-in game on Wednesday.
While Livingston and Laurel showed signs of fatigue, neither looked disinterested. That was especially clear in the third quarter, when the Rangers went on an 18-6 run to take the lead for good. Rylee Watt let out an exuberant yell after he hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, and the Rangers mobbed Johnson when he drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We’re so dedicated to winning,” Johnson said. “This group’s just incredible.”
Johnson shot 6 of 8 from the field, 2 of 4 from 3 and 15 of 15 from the free-throw line in the game. He scored 28 points and made 9 of 10 field goals against Lewistown hours early, giving him 57 points on a 15-of-18 (83.3%) performance from the field overall on Saturday.
The outburst was outstanding even for Johnson’s standards — he averages more than 26 points per game, tops in Class A — but it was less surprising than his performance a day earlier against Hardin in the semifinals. Double teams and tough man-to-man defense held Johnson to four points on 1 of 5 shooting in a 67-33 loss.
Johnson asked Glaus if they could watch game film together shortly after the semifinal game ended, Glaus said.
“I definitely wanted to prove something,” Johnson said. “Prove I’m one of the best players in the state.”
Laurel’s top scorers against Livingston were all juniors. Wylee Schnetter had 13 points (5 of 9 from the field), Nick Pasquarello chipped in 12 (4 of 9) and Colter Bales finished with 10 (4 of 12).
It’s the second straight state berth for many of Laurel’s players, but it’s the first in four years for coach Paul Barta, who replaced Pat Hansen after 29 years at Class B Columbus.
“The best thing is for the kids to have that opportunity to go and have a chance at winning a state championship. Eight teams have that chance,” Barta said. “There are a lot of teams that have had good years, and they’re not there. We’ve got two weeks still left in the season, and there are more teams sitting at home than there are playing.”
This is the second straight season in which all four Southeast A teams — Livingston, Laurel, Billings Central and Hardin — advanced to state.
The State A tournament will run from March 12-14 at Metra. Livingston will play at 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 12 to begin the tournament, and Laurel will begin its state run at 5 p.m. the same day.
Laurel lost to Butte Central and Livingston to Hamilton in the first round last season, and both teams left without a trophy.
Livingston 59, Lewistown 51
Brendon Johnson scored 28 points and missed only one field goal in Livingston's 59-51 win over Lewistown in the Eastern A Divisional boys basketball loser-out bracket Saturday morning at Metra.
Johnson shot 9 of 10 from the field and drained all four of his 3-point attempts. The senior went 6 of 9 from the free-throw line and grabbed four rebounds.
Wyatt Saile added 16 points (5 of 10 from the field), and fellow Livingston junior Tristan Stenseth had four points (4 of 4 from the line) and a game-high six assists.
Grayden Sanders led Lewistown with 12 points (5 of 9 from the field), while fellow senior Gage Clinton added 11 (3 of 10) and freshman Royce Robinson finished with 10 (4 of 13). The Golden Eagles finished the season with an 8-13 record.
Laurel 53, Havre 41
Senior Danner Purkett scored 14 points and Wylee Schnetter added 12 in the loser-out, winner-to-state game at Rocky Mountain College.
The Locomotives (13-9) led 12-11 after one quarter, 24-19 at halftime and 36-27 through three.
Junior Kellen Detrick led the Blue Ponies (12-9) with 13 points, and senior Mason Rismon chipped in nine.