BILLINGS — Laurel girls basketball coach Eddie Cochran credited Billings Central’s defense and mentioned ways his team could have played better. But the ultimate explanation for the Locomotives’ long scoring drought was a simple one.

“We couldn’t buy a bucket,” Cochran said.

Laurel, the No. 5 team in the 406mtsports.com Class A rankings, lost to No. 1 Billings Central 42-21 on Friday night at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. The Locomotives (3-1) went nearly two quarters without scoring, which turned a lead into a blowout loss.

“Defensively, we challenged them to take things in stride, let the game come to them, but also take care of business and do your job,” Central coach Jetton Ailes said of her players. “Doing our job individually on defense and shutting our person down one-on-one pays dividends down the road. The girls stepped up in a great way.”

Laurel senior Morgan Maack, who scored a team-high nine points, knocked down a 3-pointer early in the second quarter to put Laurel up 10-9. Both teams struggled to score the rest of the quarter, but Central (5-0) went into halftime up 18-10 thanks to 3 from sophomore Lauren Dull and an and-1 from junior Maria Stewart in the final two minutes.

The Rams extended that 9-0 run to 21-0 through three quarters. Maack ended the cold spell with two free throws with 7:49 left in the game.

“At times, we weren’t communicating when we needed to,” Cochran said. “You’ve got to be patient with a good team like that. Just run it, run it until you get that good open look. That’s the great part about (the Rams). They are patient when it comes to stuff like that, and they’ll run it until they get that look. Sometimes we get a little trigger happy.”

The Locomotives entered Friday averaging 60.7 points per game this season, and Central allowed 31.5. The fewest points Laurel scored in a game in the previous two seasons was 29 (twice). The Locos scored two points in the first quarter of last year’s season-ending 37-29 loss to Livingston at the Eastern A Divisional tournament. They were also outscored 14-3 in the second quarter of a 64-34 loss to Central on Feb. 18, 2020.

Central senior Isabelle Erickson and junior Mya Hansen each scored 10 points Friday. Hansen, a University of Montana commit, transferred from Laurel after her freshman year. Her father and coach at Laurel, Pat Hansen, is now an assistant coach for the Central girls.

It was technically a home game for the Rams but not their home gym, which they will finally play a game at against Glendive on Saturday (Laurel’s first home game will be Tuesday versus Livingston). Metra is a second home for Central in many ways, but the team’s last experience in that arena was an emotional one — they beat Havre 50-43 on March 13 to reach the State A title game. Mere minutes later, every state basketball tournament was called off because of COVID-19, and the Rams were declared co-champions with Hardin.

"It was bittersweet to come back" to the Metra on Friday, Stewart said. "We came and shot around earlier, and just seeing the atmosphere again was just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is what state would've been like.' "

Once Friday's game in front of 2,900 spectators got going, it felt “very familiar” to the Rams, Ailes said, and the March 13 thoughts faded into the background.

“You never know what’s going to change in an instant. We learned that last year," Ailes said. "We just tell this group to be very grateful and thankful and take advantage of every time we can step on the floor.”

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

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