BILLINGS — Hailee Brandon was one of the first in the post-game congratulation line, and when she got to the end the Big Timber senior accepted the Class B girls state basketball championship game ball from a tournament official.
Brandon, a bundle of never-ending energy for the Sheepherders, promptly started to spin the ball on her index finger.
Without missing a step or losing control of the ball, she walked from the baseline to almost midcourt with that ball still twirling on her finger, acknowledging all the adulation that was raining down on the Sheepherders after they ended a 40-year title drought with a 46-26 win over the Columbus Cougars on Saturday night.
“I’ve been practicing that since freshman year,” Brandon said, once again standing near center court at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark, still beaming and wearing a basketball net around her neck. “It was a big deal for me to be able to spin the ball on my finger. It’s really cool to do.”
The Herders themselves are now officially the big deal.
State champions for the first time since Big Timber went back-to-back in 1980 and '81, the top-ranked Herders also finished the season 24-0. This was the ending the Herders hoped for last year, when they were undefeated heading into the Southern B championship.
But they lost that game, and two games later lost again in the state semifinals. With no shot at redemption — last season’s state tournaments were canceled after the semis due to the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic — the Herders didn’t want a repeat this season.
So they finished off Columbus with a strong second half, breaking away from a 15-15 tie to outscore the Cougars 31-11 over the game’s final 16 minutes.
Big Timber coach Kim Finn challenged her team at halftime — "Is this how you want it to end?" was basically the message — and her team responded. Finn is a Herder alum herself, and remembers having her own hopes of a state championship dashed in 1988-89 when Big Timber had to settle for third place.
The feeling of being a championship coach, though, tops what she might have felt three decades ago.
“It just does feel a little bit better knowing I helped these girls be where they are,” Finn said. “But they also did a lot of it on their own. I mean, I just helped guide them a little bit, but they had the heart and the will to work hard and they put in the extra time. They were just a blessing to coach.”
Brandon led all players with 14 points and four assists. Emily Cooley had 10 points and seven boards and Bailey Finn added nine points (3 of 6 from 3-point range) and six boards as Big Timber finished off Columbus for the fourth time this season.
“Working together the past two years, we’ve all just become best friends,” Cooley, a junior, said. “All the time, we’re always over with each other no matter what. We’re always going to remember this for the rest of our lives, for sure.”
The Cougars stymied Big Timber for most of the first half. Two free throws from Payton West put Columbus up by six with 3:44 left in the second quarter, but two baskets by Cooley and another from Brandon left the score tied 15-15 at the break.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, Big Timber’s lead was seven, and it grew from there.
West led Columbus with 10 points, and Brooklyn Wyllie had three points and nine rebounds.
Columbus finished the season 16-7, with four of those losses coming to the state champions.
"I told (the girls) there's a whole lot of teams, basically everybody but Big Timber, that would love to be where you're at right now," Columbus coach Jeromey Burke said. "It hurt after the game, but there is no way they're not going to look back on this season and be proud of what they did."
After a lengthy time milling around the arena, taking pictures, sharing laughs, stories and hugs, the Big Timber contingent loaded up for the trip home.
Already a celebration was planned for Saturday night, 81 miles west on Interstate 90, in the parking lot of the Coffee Stop.
There wasn’t a minute to waste in putting an end to 40 years of wishful thinking.
“Can’t wait another minute,” Kim Finn said, smiling. “It’s been a long time coming.”
One can just picture Brandon spinning a ball on her finger the whole way home.
Roundup 46, Malta 24
Roundup’s locker room was a raucous one and when players emerged the red eyes gave their emotions away.
State tournament hardware has been hard to come by for the Panthers girls basketball program, so the third-place trophy the team earned Saturday by beating Malta 46-24 was a precious one.
It’s believed to be just the third state trophy earned by the Panthers, all of them third place. This one was the first since 1995.
“It’s definitely a good way to go out, senior year, for sure,” said Blythe Sealey, one of five seniors on the roster. “I was in the locker room, sitting there and we were about to break, and I was like, I’ve never ended a season this happy.”
Sealey led the Panthers with 14 points and 15 rebounds. Fellow senior Meghan Eiselein finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists to help Roundup win its second game of the day after Friday’s semifinal loss to Columbus.
After building a 19-12 halftime lead, No. 3 Roundup pulled away with a 16-5 third quarter. The win was the second of the season over No. 4 Malta. The teams had split their two-game regular season series.
The win not only earned a tournament trophy, it capped a 20-win season for the Panthers, which is no small feat in the COVID-19 era.
“The consolation game, that trophy is valued, because what it takes just to get to that game after you’ve had a disappointing setback,” said Roundup coach Dan Eiselein, whose team finished 20-5 overall. “It shows you’re resilient.”
Justine Lamb scored eight points to lead Malta, which shot just 16% in the second half. Coach Nate Hammond dissected that part of his team’s game before summing up what was a nice season for the M’ettes, which finished 19-4 and graduates just two seniors.
Malta, a 10-time state champion, was trying to win its first trophy since a second-place finish in 2017.
“I’m really proud of these kids,” Hammond said. “Anytime you get this far, it’s easy to feel bad right now, which a lot of us do. But we’ve come quite a ways and we gained a lot of good experience getting four games at the state tournament.
“We’ve got a good group coming back, but I’m proud of our seniors as well with the time they put in and trying to keep everything going and the leadership they showed. I’m really proud of Kylie (Hunter) and Erica (Smith).”
Malta 73, Eureka 51
Justine Lamb scored 15 points to lead four players in double figures and Malta broke from a halftime tie to defeat Eureka for a trip to the third-place game.
Allison Kunze added 13, Addy Anderson 12 and Kylie Hunter 11 for the M-ettes, who outscored the Lions 18-10 in the third quarter and by 14 more points over the final eight minutes.
Kyle Bohne led all scorers with 23 points and Michael Shea provided 11 for Eureka in its final game.
Roundup 53, Anaconda 41
Sealey had a big morning with 24 points and Roundup used an 18-3 second quarter to put the Copperheads at arm's length.
Tia Stahl added 14 for the Panthers in a game where neither team won a quarter by more than a point except for the decisive second quarter.
Alyssa Peterson scored 11 and Sami Johnson nine for Anaconda.