BILLINGS — It was a close game throughout, but the Huntley Project boys basketball team pulled away late to beat defending Class B state co-champion Fairfield 60-52 in the first round of the State B tournament Wednesday night at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.

No. 3-ranked Project (16-5) led 20-13 after one quarter and trailed 33-30 at halftime. An 18-5 third quarter put the Devils up 10 going into the fourth, and they held off the Eagles (15-9) in the final eight minutes.

Project senior Noah Bouchard had two dunks and beat the third quarter buzzer with an off-balance 3-pointer. In Saturday’s Southern B Divisional semifinal loss to Manhattan, Bouchard drained a three-quarters-court shot as the third quarter buzzer sounded.

“It’s not like he even practices them. He just has a bug every time the clock comes down,” said Project senior Jake Fox. “That’s who we want the ball to be in his hands. He’s just a killer.”

Bouchard led all players with 19 points (7 of 10 from the field) and grabbed six rebounds, Fox added 16 points (5 of 12) and a game-high 12 rebounds and senior Tim Rose scored 12 points (4 of 8).

Senior Gavin Mills led Fairfield with 14 points, sophomore Owen Cartwright-Gines had 10 (3 of 5), junior Kaelob Flores tallied nine points (4 of 12) and five boards and junior Daniel Faith added seven points (2 of 7) and six boards.

“There’s one team in the state that goes away happy with the outcome of the” state tournament, said Fairfield coach Jordan Ratliff. “I told them just to keep grinding it out. We’ve got three more games, hopefully.”

Fairfield will face Florence-Carlton at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in a loser-out game.

The Red Devils will take on another defending co-champion, Southern B rival Lodge Grass, in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Project beat the Indians 75-60 in the divisional semifinals this past Friday at the Metra, and the teams split their first two games of the season.

“We definitely knew we were going to have to play co-champions to get to the last one,” Fox said. “We knew it was going to be a tough road, but we’re ready for it.”

Last season, Project was the No. 1-ranked Class B team heading into the Southern B Divisional tournament, but it didn’t even qualify for state.

“We all have a real bad taste in our mouths after the divisional loss,” Fox said. “We know we can be better. We want to show everybody.”

Considering how competitive Lodge Grass and Project have been the past two seasons, and how passionate their fan bases are, the crowd for Thursday’s semifinal game would have approached the Metra’s 10,500-person capacity in a pre-pandemic year. But only 500 fans per team are allowed to attend each State B game this week.

“It’ll look full,” Fox said. “It’ll sound full.”

Thompson Falls 70, Shelby 34

It would have been understandable if Thompson Falls entered the State B tournament with low hopes. The unranked Blue Hawks are making their first state trip since 2006, and their first-round opponent was a No. 4 Shelby team led by 6-foot-9 University of Montana commit Rhett Reynolds.

Thompson Falls played like a higher ranked team with championship expectations.

The Blue Hawks blew past Shelby on Wednesday at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. It’s tied for their fourth-biggest win of the season in terms of point differential (they beat Troy 76-13 and 59-26, Class C Seeley-Swan 62-26 and Stillwater Christian 73-47). It's easily their biggest victory in terms of opponent and stage, according to Thompson Falls coach Jake Mickelson.

“The rhetoric around Thompson Falls was, ‘Hopefully, they’re not just happy to be here,’ ” Mickelson said. “These guys are such competitors. I could tell in the locker room before the game that they were focused. They wanted to win.”

Thompson Falls (16-5) led 15-13 after one quarter and went on a pair of 11-0 runs in the second to build a 39-20 halftime lead over the Coyotes (20-4). A Kade Pardee buzzer-beating 3-pointer put the Blue Hawks up 48-27 after three quarters, and they began the fourth on a 20-1 run to trigger a running clock.

“You never expect to win a game that big at a state tournament,” Mickelson said. “You dream about that.”

Thompson Falls senior Dante Micheli led all players with 23 points (8 of 12 from the field) and eight rebounds, while senior Kade Pardee added 18 points (7 of 9) and junior Nathan Schraeder had eight points (3 of 9) and six boards.

Senior Logan Leck led Shelby with 15 points (5 of 16) and grabbed five rebounds, and the junior Reynolds added nine points (4 of 8) and seven boards.

“Our focus was to not let Rhett get easy baskets at the rim,” Mickelson said. “We wanted to make them a jump shooting team, and knowing that they were going to come into this gym, they probably weren’t going to shoot as well as they normally do.”

The Blue Hawks will play No. 2 Manhattan in the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday back at the Metra. Shelby will face No. 10 Deer Lodge at 1 p.m. Thursday in a loser-out game.

“We’ve said the whole season, if we play the game how we play in practice, how we just do our thing, we’re confident we’re the best team in the state,” said Micheli, who transferred before the season from a school in Colorado. “This is just a dream for all of us, and we’re not going to give up.”

With a 15-year drought hovering over their heads, the Blue Hawks lost 43-41 to Missoula Loyola last Thursday in the first round of the Western B Divisional tournament, and they trailed by six points at halftime to Eureka in their next game. They beat Eureka, No. 8 Bigfork and St. Ignatius to earn the Western B’s third and final state seed.

“We had a 30-point third quarter” against Eureka, Mickelson said. “Since then, it seems like we haven’t taken our foot off the gas pedal.”

Thompson Falls’ 2006 State B appearance ended another 15-year drought, per Mickelson. The Blue Hawks lost to Roundup in the first round that year and were eliminated two games later, so whatever happens the next three days, this tournament is already their best of the century.

“You’ve got some groups sometimes that you just don’t know if they’re going to get up for a game or not,” Mickelson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 8 o’clock in the morning of 7 o’clock at night, these guys are such fierce competitors. They want to win ball games. I’m confident with them going into any game.”

Lodge Grass 62, Florence-Carlton 50

The top-ranked Indians were too difficult for the No. 9 Falcons to overcome in their State B first-round game Wednesday night at the Metra.

A dominant final 12 minutes lifted defending state co-champion Lodge Grass (17-4) over Florence (13-5).

The Falcons led 14-12 after one quarter, 29-26 at halftime and 38-31 midway through the third.

“We let down a little bit on energy. Energy goes down and our play style kind of lets loose,” said Lodge Grass junior DC Stewart. “We had a little run, we got comfortable and they made a run. When you’re at state, you can’t let that happen.”

After an impassioned speech from coach Josh Stewart calling out the lack of energy, the Indians answered with a 10-0 run to take a 41-38 lead, and they never trailed again.

“Our defense and rebounding” were keys, DC Stewart said. “We went on our run, and we didn’t let up.”

Florence coach Jordan Wittmier called a timeout right after senior JP Briney drilled a 3 to make it 38-31 with 4:17 left in the third. Wittmier took time to prevent a Lodge Grass transition opportunity, he said, and it left him with one more timeout. He was tempted to call the final one during the Indians’ 10-0 run but decided to hold onto it.

“You kind of look at it now, like, ‘I should have saved that one,’” Wittmier said of the timeout he called at the 4:17 mark. “I wanted to get the guys a minute of rest and make sure (Lodge Grass) couldn’t get a transition bucket, make sure we could get back, get the defense set up. … If we can get another bucket and make it nine, maybe even 10, all of the sudden we’re putting them in a position they haven’t been in at all this season.”

The Indians went on a 30-9 run from 4:17 mark in the third to the late fourth.

Lodge Grass junior Damon Gros Ventre scored a game-high 20 points (4 of 14 from the field, 10 of 12 from the free throw line) and grabbed 11 rebounds, while DC Stewart had 16 points (6 of 10 on field goals) and seven boards, senior Malachi Little Nest scored 11 points (5 of 13) and junior Jadene Archilta added 10 points (5 of 9) and a game-high 12 boards.

Briney led Florence with 17 points (6 of 13 on field goals, 5 of 10 on 3s), junior Beau Neal had 11 points (4 of 16 FG) and seven boards and senior Eli Pedersen added 10 points (4 of 9).

“We did a very good job defensively, especially early. As the game wore on, we started to get a little tired, and they handled us on the boards,” Wittmier said. “We gave them a darn good run for their money, that’s for sure. Just five minutes short.”

Lodge Grass was playing without junior starter Ty Moccasin, who sprained his ankle at last week’s Southern B Divisional tournament. DC Stewart said Moccasin should be back for the Indians’ semifinal game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday against Southern B rival Huntley Project.

“He brings heart. … We all bring heart,” DC Stewart said. “That’s what really showed tonight in that second half.”

Florence will face Fairfield in a loser-out game at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Manhattan 53, Deer Lodge 39

Like it did in its last State B tournament appearance, Manhattan advanced to the semifinals.

The No. 2-ranked Tigers, who are playing in their first state tournament since 2012, rolled past No. 10 Deer Lodge in the first game of the State B tournament Wednesday morning at the Metra.

"It's pretty cool. That was our goal, to get into the semis," said Manhattan junior Finn Tesoro. "We've got to build a program."

Manhattan (18-2) led 14-8 after one quarter, 20-14 at halftime and 41-24 through three quarters. The Tigers began the third quarter on a 21-4 run to build their largest lead of the game, 41-18. 

"They started out the second half hitting two pretty deep 3s," said Deer Lodge coach Dakota Norris. "That’s when I think we felt a little panicked.”

Manhattan won last week's Southern B Divisional championship, which was also played at the 10,500-person capacity Metra (a maximum of 500 spectators per team are allowed during each game at the State B tourney because of COVID-19).

"Deer Lodge, they've never played here, so it helps to get a few games in the Metra," Tesoro said. "When you walk into the Metra, it's kind of crazy. You get overwhelmed a little bit."

Tesoro led all players with 17 points (6 of 8 from the field, 4 of 6 from 3-point range), and senior Caden Holgate added 12 points (5 of 10 on field goals).

Aidan Thompson led the Wardens of Powell County (12-5) with 11 points (5 of 8 FG) and grabbed a game-high seven rebounds, while fellow senior Ozzie King scored 10 points (3 of 10).

Overall, the Tigers shot 21 of 32 (65.6%) from the field and 6 of 13 (46.2%) from 3. Deer Lodge finished at 48.1% and 13.3%, respectively.

Manhattan will take on Thompson Falls in the semifinals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, while Deer Lodge will face No. 4 Shelby at 1 p.m. Thursday in the consolation bracket.

“We want to end on a win, and the only way to do that is to win three straight," Norris said. "We put ourselves in this situation, just like Shelby did. We’ll have to stop them completely, and we’re going to have to knock down some open shots.”

In 2012, the Tigers beat Fairfield 51-37 in the first round and Shepherd 61-41 in the semifinals to reach the State B title game, where they lost 67-62 to Malta. Manhattan has won two state titles in program history — in 1964 and 1973.

Montana Standard and 406mtsports.com reporter Matthew Kiewiet contributed to this story.

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

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