GREAT FALLS — When it was over, the Box Elder Bears knew what to do. After all, they've been here before.
After fending off tireless Roy-Winifred 48-42 for their second consecutive Class C girls state basketball championship Saturday night, eliciting a boisterous cheer from a couple hundred spectators clad in purple and yellow, the Bears converged in an unbridled dogpile at midcourt at Four Seasons Arena.
"It was little hard to breathe in there," joked junior guard Joelnell Momberg, who had 13 key points and displayed crucial ball-handling down the stretch.
Moments later, they received their title trophy at center court and then marched en masse toward a basket where fans cheered and waved signs. As they grouped for a photo, they began a chant that represented what this entire season was all about.
"Back-to-back! Back-to-back!" they cried, with plenty of help that Momberg described as "our backbone".
Box Elder did it by bolting to an early 11-point lead and building it to 15 in the third quarter. They then held on for dear life as Roy-Winifred finally solved the press and inched close, each basket increasing the tension.
The Outlaws even had a chance for the tying basket in the final two minutes but were called for a charging foul with the score 40-38.
Not until junior guard Sarah Parisian made two free throws with 1:08 to play to put Box Elder up by four could the Bears breathe. Two free throws by Momberg and two more by leading scorer Lilly Gopher — "Lilly The Legend", the sign behind a basket read — finally put away the game, ushering in another celebration.
Gopher, who scored 15 points despite foul trouble, grew misty-eyed as she and the team's four other seniors accepted the school's third title trophy.
"I really did, I'm not gonna lie," said Gopher, who will pick a school for college basketball soon. "It's an unexplainable feeling, it's once in a lifetime. It’s making history at our high school. No one’s ever gone back-to-back and it’s a great feeling.”
Dyauni Boyce scored 14 points and Madeline Heggem 12 for Roy-Winifred, which defeated Box Elder 51-45 for the Northern C divisional crown a week ago and returns all of its players next year. The Outlaws had 20 first-half turnovers but only four in the second half as they clawed back.
“They amped up the pressure, I’d say,” Outlaws co-coach Marietta Boyce told the Great Falls Tribune of Box Elder. “But a lot of it was we weren’t quite as aggressive and didn’t take it at them quite as much in that first half. And then being able to take your time and finish. Our kids didn’t do it. We were just rattled a bit.”
Though they went the entire fourth quarter without a field goal, the Bears never got rattled. Anxious yes, but never rattled.
"Here, biggest stage, the girls came out and executed," Box Elder coach Joel Rosette said. "It's amazing. Seniors over four years get two titles, three state appearances, I'm super proud because they put in the work.
"We always talk about crying on the last day of the season — either tears of joy or tears of pain. I have tears of joy tonight."