BOZEMAN — For the third straight year, Billings Central is headed back to the state championship game.
The Rams defeated Browning 66-51 on Friday night at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in the semifinals to clinch a third date with the Hardin Bulldogs for the state title. The Eastern A rival Rams and Bulldogs met twice during the regular season, splitting the meetings and combining for five overtimes between the two matches.
"We're playing a team that we wanted to play. This is a great Hardin team that deserves to be there and I think we deserve to be there," Central coach Jim Stergar said. "I can't tell you how much respect I have for the Hardin Bulldogs. I hope we can give everyone a show like our previous two games and playing five overtimes. They were fun games and whether you win or lose those games they prepare you for this game."
Central and Browning played a back-and-forth first half. Browning grabbed a 21-17 lead after a score from Deion Mad Plume but Central responded with a 15-1 run, getting baskets from five different players, to take a 32-22 lead at halftime.
"We had a sneaking suspicion that we'd be playing each other in the title game and it's great to be back but it's time for us to win one," Stergar said. "Our guys are focused on that and we're going to give it 100 percent. Our guys will be ready and willing to get out there and it should be fun."
From there, Central was in control. The Indians made a couple of pushes in the third quarter, but a six-point deficit was as close as they got before Central ended the third quarter on a 12-3 run to lead to make it 47-32 going into the fourth.
Once again Chrishon Dixon led the way for Central with 22 points and five assists, seemingly driving to the basket at will while also finding open teammates with ease. Sam Gray tallied 12 points while Seth Sasich and Cade Herriford each added eight points.
Nathaniel Stiffarm led Browning with 15 points. The Indians will take on Frenchtown at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday in the consolation semifinals.
Dixon was the only player on Central's current team with significant minutes in last year's state championship, and players like Gray, Sasich, Herriford and more have contributed big minutes to the Rams' success this season.
"We're such a tight-knit group and everybody has been contributing, especially as of late," Gray said. "It's really big for us and it feels that much more special this year. I definitely had some jitters coming into the game yesterday but getting into the game and getting the butterflies out and I've just had fun with it.
"We were really excited but knowing what's happened the last two years we have to stay focused and get good rest and prepare for tomorrow night."
The Rams and Hardin will tip-off at 8 p.m. on Saturday night.
Hardin 47, Lewistown 32
For the first time since 1997, the Hardin Bulldogs are heading back to the State A championship game after they defeated Lewistown 47-32.
Hardin didn't score as much as usual, but the Bulldogs used strong defense to force Lewistown into 23 turnovers and held the Golden Eagles to 32 percent shooting. David Evans led the Bulldogs in scoring with 11 and Cayden Redfield and Famous Lefthand each added nine.
"It feels great. That's all I have to say," a beaming Evans said after the game. "We played a tremendous game, our defense was really good. We just pressured them and I think that was the key to our success."
Hardin scored 27 points off of turnovers, leading 21-9 at one point in the second quarter. Hardin never relented that double-digit lead, and used its stifling full-court press to force turnovers and get out in transition. Hardin shot 44 percent from the field.
It wasn't quite the hot shooting the Bulldogs experienced the day before in their win over Butte Central. They had to grind out more possessions against Lewistown and slow things down once in a while, too.
"Yesterday we just came out hot," Evans said. "Today, we came out a little slow but we eased into it and that's what got us to it."
Lewistown struggled to hit shots and also shot only 3 for 11 from the free throw line. Tanner Trafton led the Golden Eagles in scoring with eight points while also grabbing 14 rebounds. Lewistown will play against Hamilton at 9 a.m. on Saturday in the consolation semifinals.
"It means a lot to go to the state championship game. It's been awhile for Hardin," Hardin coach Andrew Round Face said. "It's been a lot of hard work. It seems like it took forever for us to get here but it was all worth it. Representing our community and families has been really good ... We've had such strong community support and they've been amazing for us day in and out."
Hamilton 66, Belgrade 63
Cam Rothie took the ball from just past half-court, drove to his right, lifted up a soft layup that went in, was fouled, and the celebration began for the Hamilton Broncs.
Rothie then buried the free throw, and Hamilton topped Belgrade 66-63 in a loser-out game on Friday afternoon.
"We were doing pick-and-roll throughout the whole game because they weren't switching so Tyler Chouinard set one up-top for me and I came around the corner," Rothie said among congratulations from Hamilton students and fans. "If the guy in the corner would've crashed I would've kicked, and he didn't, so I went up and got fouled and put it in.
"I knew I got fouled so I knew I was getting free throws anyway so I was like, 'Let's make it a 3-point lead and make them at least shoot a half-court shot.'"
Rothie knocked down his layup with three seconds left in the game. Belgrade heaved a half-court shot that was off and the Broncs lived to fight another day.
Rothie would be one of four Broncs who finished in double-figures. Carter Kearns led the team with 18 while Rothie finished with 17. Hunter Omlid and Tanner Goligoski each had 12. As a team the Broncs shot the ball 42 percent from the field and shot 9 for 26 from three.
Trailing 56-47 with four minutes left, Kearns and Rothie led a furious charge back for Hamilton (24-1). The duo combined for Hamilton's final 19 points, with Kearns scoring 12 of his points then. Then, down six, Kearns drilled a 3-pointer and Rothie immediately followed up with a steal and layup to bring Hamilton within one point with 1:33 left.
Belgrade's Dawson Fowler went to the line next, and made one of two free throws. Hamilton came the other way, and Rothie missed two free throws but Kearns grabbed the miss and scored with just under 40 seconds to play. Belgrade was unable to score on the other end, setting the Broncs up for Rothie's game-winner.
"It was exciting to see those guys make big plays, especially Carter," Hamilton coach Travis Blome said. "He was struggling a little big in the first game (against Billings Central) and then really came up huge for us. It's just exciting. Our main goal was gone but just the mental toughness of those guys to come through in the end really made me proud as a coach."
Fowler finished the game with 28 points, including five 3-pointers, for the Panthers and Noel Reynolds added 12. Belgrade shot the ball at a 47 percent clip and will finish its season at 14-9.
Frenchtown 53, Butte Central 40
Friday's State A tournament kicked off with two teams that are quite familiar with one another, and Frenchtown ended up the victor, topping Butte Central 53-40.
Zach Baker scored 16 points to lead the Broncs and Cade Baker added 11 and Frenchtown (17-10) will play in another loser-out game on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m.
Frenchtown took control right away, leading 18-9 at the end of the first quarter. Butte Central used an 8-0 run to get within one point to open the second, but Frenchtown used a 7-0 run of their own to end the quarter and go into halftime up eight. Frenchtown shot the ball just under 53 percent for the game while holding the Maroons to around 38 percent shooting.
"Today, maybe it was our comfort level with Butte Central, this being our fifth meeting," Frenchtown coach Mark Quinn said. "It's crazy how often we've played them. They realized this morning when we checked out of the hotel, they realized, 'Oh crap, this is for real.'
"They came out with great energy and we played together. That's our big key every game. When we play together we're a lot better."
Butte Central ends its season at 16-10. Cade Holter scored 10 points to lead the Maroons in scoring.