LAUREL — Pat Hansen knows a thing or two about the Billings Central-Laurel rivalry, so his words carried extra weight when he spoke to the Central girls basketball team at halftime of Tuesday’s road game.
The top-ranked Rams were trailing the No. 5 Locomotives 25-16 at the half and were frustrated to be playing below their standard for the second time in four days. Hansen, a Central assistant who coached at Laurel from 2005 to 2019, tried to get his players into a different head space.
“He was like, ‘This is one of those games you live for, the games that are challenging,’ ” said Central senior Isabelle Erickson. “That kind of calmed everyone down. We were like, ‘Oh, we should enjoy this. We shouldn’t be afraid of this game. We should enjoy playing someone competitively like this.’ ”
The Rams (13-1) certainly enjoyed themselves at the end of the game, which they won 49-43 to clinch the top seed in the Eastern A.
“All I’ve been thinking about is wanting to get that No. 1 seed,” Erickson said. “When we were at halftime, I think I wanted it more than I ever wanted it, so I’m just pretty relieved and pretty happy about that outcome.”
Laurel (9-4) went on a 17-2 run in the first half to turn a four-point deficit into an 11-point lead, the largest advantage either team had all game. Erickson scored the final points of the first half on a determined drive to the hoop. She admitted after the game that there was some anger behind that layup.
“I was like … ‘We’re going to win this game,’ ” Erickson said. “ ‘I want to beat Laurel because they’re our rival, and I want that No. 1 seed at divisionals.’ ”
Erickson’s bucket started a 17-2 run for the Rams. Maria Stewart and fellow junior Mya Hansen, Pat’s daughter and a Laurel transfer, combined to score the first nine points of the second half, and Erickson put Central up 27-25 with 3:43 to go in the third quarter. Laurel ended the quarter on an 8-2 run to retake the lead, but an and-1 from Hansen put the Rams up early in the fourth, and they never trailed again.
Central outscored the Locos 17-10 in the third quarter and 16-8 in the fourth.
Hansen led all players with 21 points (12 of 13 on free throws), and Erickson added 12.
Junior Becky Melcher led Laurel with 11 points, and freshman Emma Timm added 10.
The Rams shot 19 of 24 from the free throw line, and the Locos went 5 of 16.
“Just a little disappointed because we had them,” said Laurel coach Eddie Cochran. “We make the free throws, we actually win that game.”
Central suffered its first loss of the season on Friday, 51-38 at No. 3 Hardin. Laurel beat Hardin 54-38 a day earlier.
“That loss against Hardin really showed us that we can have people who are going to compete against us and we are going to be challenged, not just have an easy game all the time,” Erickson said. “It kind of made us realize that we need to play a solid 32 minutes and play our game.”
The Rams beat the Locos 42-21 on Jan. 15 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, a game in which Laurel didn’t score for nearly two straight quarters. The Locos surpassed 21 points at the 2:40 mark of Tuesday’s game.
“There’s a lot of adjustments that you try to make there,” Cochran said of the differences between Tuesday’s game and the Jan. 15 loss. “I can’t give you all my secrets because we may have to see them again.”