BILLINGS — Emily Cooley was about as even-keeled about winning a divisional title as her balanced stat line.
The 5-foot-11 junior had eight points, nine rebounds and six assists Saturday in helping the Big Timber Sheepherders defeat the Columbus Cougars in the Southern B championship game.
But the sense from talking to Cooley after the top-ranked Herders’ 49-40 victory was that while it was nice to end the program’s long divisional drought — one that dates to 1980, according to Big Timber coach Kim Finn — there are other things to focus on.
Mainly, next week’s Class B state tournament, which is back at Metra. It was last year the Herders went into the divisional tournament championship undefeated, but they lost that game and then went on to also lose at state in the semifinals.
“Last year really, really got us hoping for this year,” Cooley said. “Last year hurt a little bit, it stung when we lost. So this year, we’re going for it.”
Going for it this year has meant a perfect record so far, 21-0, though this past week hasn’t been without its tense moments. Whitehall took Big Timber to double overtime in the District 5B championship game before Big Timber prevailed, and the Herders dispatched Joliet by eight, Roundup by 11 and now Columbus at divisionals.
Big Timber didn’t shake off the Cougars, though, until late in the third quarter. Columbus’ Sawyer Wiggs tied the score at 25-25 on two free throws with 4:40 left in the quarter, before a Cooley putback and two free throws from her spurred a 9-0 Big Timber run.
The Herders kept the lead between five and 10 points the rest of the way.
“Our end goal is to win state, so this is just a stepping stone,” said Finn, who good-naturedly acknowledged the divisional title might mean more to her than her players. “But we really did want to get first. But, yeah, we’re not finished, so we’re looking to next week.”
Hailee Brandon led the Herders with 13 points and Bailey Finn added 10. Freshman Kameryn Ketcham came off the bench to hit two big 3-pointers when Big Timber needed them and finished with eight points.
Payton West had a game-high 19 points for Columbus (14-6). But take away her 8-for-11 shooting performance, and the rest of the Cougars were just 6 for 19 from the floor.
Columbus coach Jeromey Burke was disappointed in that regard. Still, the Cougars will be back next week as well, and the second-place divisional trophy is fine for now.
“If you would have told me at Christmas time we’d take second, I’d take it right away with how competitive this tournament was and how many good teams were here," he said. "When it gets to this point, you’ve got to play well enough to beat good teams and we just didn’t play well enough tonight.”
Roundup 45, Joliet 34
The seconds ticked down, and as they did, Roundup senior Blythe Sealey, standing near the halfcourt line, bent at the waist and buried her head in her hands.
The final buzzer sounded and fellow senior Meghan Eiselein and the rest of the Panthers joined Sealey for a long, emotion-packed group hug.
Roundup’s state-tournament drought dating to 2002 was over with a 45-34 win over Joliet in the third-place game.
This group of Panthers had been close before. Friday’s semifinal loss to top-ranked Big Timber marked the third time in the last four years Roundup had lost in the semis. This time, though, the No. 3 Panthers battled back, defeating No. 2 Colstrip 53-49 Saturday morning behind 29 points from Tia Stahl and then topping their 4B rival later in the day for the fourth time this season.
Sealey said experiencing the moment tops dreaming about it.
“It’s way better, way better,” she said. “I thought I would just cheer and look at my parents, but I was bawling. … The emotions were high and it was crazy.”
Sealey scored 18 points and Eiselein added 12 for the Panthers (17-4), who finally turned the J-Hawks away in the fourth quarter.
Joliet’s Merrin Schwend tied the score at 29-29 with 1:10 left in the third quarter — the game’s fourth and final tie — before Eiselein answered with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Panthers a three-point lead.
Sealey opened the fourth with another 3 and the Panthers were on their way to outscoring Joliet 13-5 in the fourth quarter.
Roundup will return to Metra next week for the Class B state tournament.
“It’s been a challenging year for everybody, you know, when you don’t even know if you’re going to have a season,” coach Dan Eiselein said, referencing the smaller tournament crowd due to COVID-19 protocols. “The atmosphere isn’t the same as it’s been, but I think it’s a blessing that these kids get to come and compete in this facility. Not everyone gets that opportunity. …
“So, I asked the girls to make sure to take in everything in this building. To be here one more week, that’s a gift in itself for us.”
Schwend scored 17 points to lead the J-Hawks, who finished the season 12-12.
Joliet beat Whitehall 59-44 in morning loser-out play to advance to the third-place game.
Read more on the morning games in the Full Court Press.