BILLINGS — Famous Lefthand drove right, took one dribble between his legs, stepped back and fired a 3-pointer that streamed through the net to beat the third-quarter buzzer. It gave the Hardin boys basketball team a 58-31 lead over Livingston in Friday’s Class A state semifinal game at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
Lefthand looked at Hardin’s fan section and raised three fingers after his exclamatory shot. He took a few seconds to soak in the Bulldog bliss.
“Enjoying the moment and not taking that for granted,” he said, “because anything can be taken away.”
Lefthand reflected on that memory minutes after he learned his season had abruptly ended.
Late Friday night, the Montana High School Association canceled the high school basketball tournaments after news broke of Montana’s first presumptive cases of the novel coronavirus. The four positive tests of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, prompted the MHSA to end the basketball season with a day to go and crown co-champions in all four classifications. For the State A boys, that means Hardin shares the 2019-20 title with Butte Central, which beat Browning in Friday’s second semifinal game.
Lefthand and the rest of the Bulldogs learned the news around 9 p.m. Friday, right before the Hardin and Livingston girls were introduced for their State A semifinal game. Almost exactly two hours earlier, Gov. Steve Bullock announced the four presumptive COVID-19 cases.
The Metra public address announcer read a statement about 15 minutes after Bullock’s announcement. The PA’s script, using outdated information, caused spectators to break out into applause and cheers.
“After a conference call with the State Department of Health and Human Services at 4:30 p.m. today, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Montana,” the PA announcement read in part. “The management and staff of the First Interstate Arena are working very hard to keep the facility as clean as possible.
“Please practice appropriate respiratory etiquette and proper hand hygiene practices. Let’s have a great tournament and let’s stay safe.”
Around 6:30 p.m. (less than an hour before the Montana COVID-19 news broke), MHSA executive director Mark Beckman released a statement more or less identical to the Metra announcement. Beckman wrote, after a conference call with DPHHS at 4:30, that “the recommendation is not to cancel the state basketball tournaments. They are proceeding as scheduled.”
At 5:18 p.m., Montana media received a release entitled "Prevention Measures for COVID-19" from the United Health Command, made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services.
"The UHC recommends that organizers and sponsors of large gatherings, including events, fundraisers, concerts and the like, consider postponing those activities in an effort to reduce the public’s risk of exposure to germs," the UHC's press release said.
Before the cancellation, Montana was the only state holding high school sporting events without limiting attendance, per USA TODAY. Professional and college officials, including the NBA and NCAA, suspended or canceled their seasons/tournaments, mostly on Wednesday and Thursday. The NAIA women’s basketball championship, scheduled for next week at Metra, was canceled on Thursday.
Butte Central’s 66-50 semifinal win over Browning ended minutes before the COVID-19 news broke, so the Maroons still believed they would be playing for a title on Saturday.
“I think it’s something that’s weighed over everyone’s minds throughout,” Central coach Brodie Kelly said of the coronavirus shortly after the semifinal victory. “I respect the leadership of all these people running these tournaments at MHSA to kind of have the guts to stand up to some social pressures and think logically. We trust in the decisions that are made.
“I hope we play. These boys want it so bad. In whatever arena, whatever parameters we have, we just want to play the game.”
Sadness and anger wafted over the Hardin boys when they learned their season was over. Lefthand and Hardin coach Andrew Round Face wondered why the title game couldn’t be played without spectators. Round Face criticized the MHSA’s decision making, not just on Friday but for their actions (or inaction) before the tournament began.
“We should’ve had a protocol ahead of time,” Round Face said. “We knew this was coming. Everybody knew it was gonna show up sooner or later, and we all hoped it wouldn’t show up until after tomorrow.
“We should’ve thought ahead and made accommodations where we could’ve went without fans and just had the teams there. Even with us being one of the last states to get (COVID-19), we should’ve went off of what other people were doing or set up something different.”
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the 406mtsports.com rankings, improved to 23-0 with Friday’s 73-41 win over the Rangers, one of the few teams to challenge Hardin all season. Round Face intended “no disrespect to” No. 2 Butte Central (20-4), he said, but he didn’t “see anybody beating us” all season.
Hardin’s boys and girls teams huddled around center court and faced their fans after the top-ranked girls’ 64-40 semifinal (and co-championship) victory over Livingston late Friday. Men sang the Crow victory song behind them and fans chanted “undefeated” and “we’re No. 1.”
The chants were technically accurate. All Lefthand and his teammates did was cry.
“Being a co-champion is not anything to be proud of. I don’t want it,” Lefthand said. “Yeah, we got a 23-0 season, but it’s not the big picture that I wanted. I wanted to win state.”
Butte Central 66, Browning 50
Butte Central rallied past Browning Friday night.
Browning (17-5) led 20-14 after one quarter, and Indians senior Riley Spoonmaker drilled a 3-pointer to open the second quarter. Central not only erased the nine-point deficit, it finished the quarter on runs of 17-8 and 10-1 to take a 31-28 lead into the half.
A 12-2 run to end the third quarter put the Maroons up 12 going into the fourth. The final points of the third scored on a dunk from senior Jared Simkins.
Central’s largest lead was 66-45, good for a 52-22 run after Spoonmaker’s 3.
“Sometimes, it just takes us a little time to figure out a team,” said Simkins, who finished with 12 points (5 of 7 from the field) and nine rebounds. “But once we get it figured out, stuff just clicks for us.”
Jared’s twin Matt Simkins, a Montana football commit, scored 20 points (5 of 8 from the field, 10 of 11 from the free-throw line) and grabbed eight rebounds. Fellow senior Braden Harrington added 14 points (6 of 9 from the field), and senior Trevor Neumann added 10 points (4 of 10).
Spoonmaker led all players with 24 points (9 of 16), and junior Blayne DeRoche added 10 points (3 of 12) and eight boards for the Indians (17-5).
Central lost to Browning 72-52 in the 2008 State A title game, and it fell to Columbia Falls 52-50 in its bid for the 2005 championship. Kelly played for the 1992 Maroons, who beat Stevensville 68-56 for first place.
Hardin 73, Livingston 41
For the third straight year, the Bulldogs advanced to the Class A boys basketball state championship game after handling Livingston (17-7) Friday at Metra.
Senior Sage McMinn completed an and-one early in the second quarter to cut Livingston’s deficit to 16-14. Peyton Good Luck answered with two straight buckets. Lefthand followed with two more. Senior Kidd Little Light split free throws and hit a 3. Lefthand and Good Luck each made another shot.
McMinn scored Livingston’s only points during that stretch, a 16-2 run that gave the Bulldogs a 32-16 halftime lead.
A 26-15 third quarter all but sealed the win for Hardin.
“I had a bad first quarter, and then I came back in and just wanted to prove to myself that I could do better and help my team out," Good Luck said. "I knew we were gonna make a run."
Lefthand led all players with 18 points (8 of 17 from the field) and five assists, senior Cayden Redfield had 16 points (7 of 9) and a game-best 11 rebounds and Good Luck scored 11 points (5 of 6).
"This is pretty much the same team I have from last year," Round Face said. "We're still extremely confident on everything. We know what it takes to get there."
Senior Brendon Johnson led Livingston with 14 points (5 of 12), junior Tristan Stenseth had 10 (8 of 10 from the free-throw line) and McMinn finished with nine points (3 of 9 on field goals) and eight boards.
Johnson, who averaged a Class A-best 26.7 points per game through the regular season, has scored 18 points combined in his last two games against the Bulldogs.
"We wanted them to beat us with their other four players. Brendon can beat anybody," Round Face said. "Our goal was only to hold him beneath his average. There's a reason he's the point leader in the state. He can flat-out shoot. We had to get him out of rhythm."
Laurel 55, Billings Central 47
Laurel eliminated defending state champion Billings Central in a loser-out game on Friday at Metra.
The Locomotives (14-11) trailed 13-10 after one quarter but outscored their Eastern A rival 16-9 in the second quarter and 29-24 in the second half.
Wylee Schnetter led Laurel with 12 points (3 of 5 from the field, 6 of 6 from the free-throw line), fellow junior Nick Pasquarello scored 11 (4 of 8 from the field), junior Colter Bales had 10 points (3 of 9) and eight rebounds and junior Eli Aby recorded eight points (3 of 7) and a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Locos shot 15 of 17 from the free-throw line, while the Rams finished 10 of 18.
Central senior Gabriel Penha Dos Santos scored a game-high 14 points (5 of 8). The No. 5-ranked Rams finished 13-10.
Frenchtown 51, Polson 47
Fourth-ranked Frenchtown held off Polson in the consolation bracket.
Zack Baker led the Broncs (19-5) with 15 points, while Cade Baker and Brandon Finley each scored 10. Finley also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
Polson's Colton Graham led all players with 20 points and tallied seven boards.
Polson finished its season with a 13-11 record.