BILLINGS — Brock Blatter was struck by the lack of energy at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, although he wasn’t surprised.
The Hardin boys basketball team was handling Blatter and Billings Central for three-plus quarters on Friday night, just like it did a month earlier. The fans had little reason to expect a classic.
Well, that’s what they got, thanks to the heroics of Blatter and his teammates.
Hardin, the No. 1 Class A team in the 406mtsports.com rankings, surrendered a double-digit lead and needed double overtime to fend off its Eastern A rival. But the Bulldogs won 97-95 and improved to 12-0. The unranked Rams (7-4) left the court feeling equally accomplished.
“We could’ve easily gotten blown off the floor tonight,” said Central coach Jim Stergar. “We’re walking out of the Metra tonight with our heads held high, knowing that we’re back to where people didn’t think we’d be right now.”
The Bulldogs and Rams first met on Dec. 20 in Hardin, and the home team rolled 88-61. On Friday, Hardin began the game on a 9-2 run and led 25-12 after one quarter. Central pulled within single digits a couple times in the second and third quarters, but Hardin led 42-31 at the break and 61-50 going into the fourth.
The Bulldogs led 71-62 with about 3:30 left in regulation, but they had to protect their lead without senior all-state guard Trae Hugs, who fouled out with 3:55 remaining. Fellow senior starter Eric Woods picked up his fifth foul thirty seconds later.
It took just over a minute for Central to go on an 8-0 run, capped by a 3-pointer from senior Gabriel Penha Dos Santos that cut Hardin’s lead to 71-70.
Hardin senior Famous Lefthand believed his team relaxed after building its 13-point lead in the first half and a 14-point advantage in the second.
“Playing like our heads were chopped off” on defense, Lefthand said. “Not communicating, not doing everything, not doing the assignment.”
Hardin led 75-73 with 15.4 seconds left, and Central had possession. Senior Charlie Parkan had an open look at a game-winning 3, but it rimmed out. Blatter grabbed the rebound and hoisted a layup as the buzzer sounded. It went in, and the game went to overtime.
“Lot of emotions going through my head. It was crazy,” Blatter said. “Best shot I’ve ever hit. Clutchest shot I’ve ever hit.”
The sophomore Blatter looked like he might play hero again with 20 seconds left in overtime, when he received an inbounds pass from junior Marcus Wittman and laid the ball in to put the Rams up 83-82. That was the score with 6.7 seconds to go, and Parkan went to the line to shoot two free throws. He split them.
With four seconds left on the clock, Dos Santos fouled out and sent Peyton Good Luck to the line. The Hardin senior, who finished with 18 points, swished both foul shots, and the game went to a second overtime.
The Bulldogs took a five-point lead in the second OT, but more sweet shooting from Central cut its deficit to one. A broken play in the waning seconds looked like it would doom the Rams, who trailed 97-95. Instead, junior Sam Dull received the ball in the left corner, and he fired an open 3-pointer at the buzzer. It went long.
“Obviously, it’s still a loss, but moving forward, it’s a good stepping stone,” Blatter said. “We got better.”
Stergar called Hardin “the best team in the state of Montana,” or at least up there with Missoula Hellgate (No. 1 in Class AA). Before Friday, the Bulldogs had won nine games by at least 20 points. They beat Hamilton 74-67 on Dec. 6, and Lefthand beat the buzzer to give them a 61-60 win over Livingston on Dec. 21.
“They gave us their best effort. It wasn’t like they had an off night,” Stergar said. “We hung with them in the second half, and I thought our guys just did a great job of mentally staying into it.”
The tireless Lefthand scored a game-high 41 points, 32 of which came in the second half and overtimes. The Rocky Mountain College signee forced some tough shots at the end of regulation, helping the Rams come back. He adjusted in extra time, passing out of double teams and finding open teammates.
“I know how to play with each and every one of those guys out there,” Lefthand said. “I know what they can do, and they know what I can do.”
The game reminded Lefthand of his sophomore year, when the Bulldogs and Rams combined to go to five overtimes in their two regular season matchups.
Dos Santos led Central with 24 points, Blatter scored 15, Parkan had 14 and Wittman and senior Mason Yochum each added 11.
“Whether or not we win that game tonight, they’re not gonna hand us the state championship trophy,” Stergar said. “Our guys know that. They know the process, what it takes.”
Shortly after Friday’s thriller ended, Stergar reminded his players how it began.
Before tip-off, both teams donned red warmup shirts with the letters "MMIW" (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) on the front. Hardin’s players have worn red MMIW warmups since Selena Not Afraid (a junior at Hardin High) went missing on Jan. 1, and Central joined the Bulldogs on Friday. Not Afraid’s body was found on Monday.
“We’re wearing red tonight for a lot bigger reason and bigger cause than playing in a basketball game,” Stergar said. “Basketball is not everything. Basketball’s just a fun way of building some character, building some toughness to learn life lessons down the road.”