GREAT FALLS — Aiyanna Ereaux crashed to the floor — again — clutching her right ankle, and with her went the energy of a boisterous Hardin crowd and, perhaps, the Bulldogs' Class A state girls tournament hopes.
In a hushed Four Seasons Arena on Thursday night, trainers attended to Ereaux under a basket and a scoreboard that showed a first-round game against Columbia Falls well in hand with 2:27 to play. Every orange-clad fan in the building knew it was the same ankle the do-it-all 5-foot-7 senior post had injured two weeks ago in the Eastern A divisional.
Until that moment, Ereaux had been the cornerstone of what would become a warp-speed 60-34 victory over the Wildkats, the defending state champions. She had just scored her team-high 14th point on a steal and layup, her ankle too gimpy to shoot the free throw for a potential old-school three-point play.
"I went up for the layup and I tried to catch myself and it just tweaked," Ereaux said 20 minutes later after gingerly trying to walk it off in a tunnel. "I got scared, and then I realized I was OK. As soon as I got up, it started going away."
The Bulldogs were more than OK on Thursday, especially when the Billings Skyview transfer was in the lineup. They rolled to a 21-11 first-quarter lead, sputtered on the boards with Ereaux on the bench with two fouls in the second quarter, then poured it on late as their tireless full-court energy caused 14 turnovers and limited Columbia Falls to 30 percent shooting.
"We wanted to start fast and wanted to get the lead right away with our pressure and hopefully get them out of their tempo and their comfort zone," Hardin coach Cindy Farmer said. "They kept the pressure on and good things happened. Overall, I'm pretty happy with their performance."
If anything, Farmer said, the Bulldogs got over-eager as they built a 22-point lead and took shots early in possessions in the third and fourth quarters. Though the quick triggers caused a few anxious moments for the Hardin faithful, easily the largest contingent on opening day, in the end it didn't matter.
"It is the way we play," Farmer said with a laugh. "We did try to back it off a little bit, but they do it for 15 or 20 seconds and then, you know ... yeah, at times we need to do that."
Ereaux helped ensure there would be no rally, her presence ending the Wildkats' brief second-quarter dominance on the boards, when they scored 12 second-chance points. Senior guard Karissa DuShane added 13 points and Bergan Realbird contributed six points and 10 rebounds. Hannah Schweikert's seven points topped Columbia Falls, which returned to state despite heavy graduation losses from the title team.
After her injury, Ereaux returned to the bench as the seconds wound down, rubbing her right ankle. She walked off the floor with a more normal gait after the postgame handshake, receiving a hug as she left the floor.
She's confident she'll be ready for Friday night's run-and-gun showdown with Butte Central.
"My heart did a little flutter," Farmer said of Ereaux hitting the floor. "She's so important, she does everything for us, offensively and defensively; you might not see it in the stats. It's her defense and being able to anticipate and read things — always in the right place. And then when she can score, that's just an extra bonus for us.
"She's a tough one, a tough competitor. We'll talk with the trainer and he'll get her ready. She said she just kind of tweaked it, but we have to be cautious."
Butte Central 43, Glendive 28
Kloie Thatcher didn't recognize the Butte Central team on the floor, and it wasn't because her mind was foggy from battling the flu since Tuesday. After all, coach Meg Murphy also wondered who she was watching as the Maroons gritted out a victory over Glendive.
"I thought it was an ugly win," Thatcher said after gathering 15 points, six assists and four rebounds but committing six turnovers. "That's probably the worst we played in a long time. You know, a win is a win and we'll take it, but we'll have to bring whole different team tomorrow because Hardin's a great team."
The teams were tied 16-16 at halftime as Thatcher, who is headed to Rocky Mountain College next fall, was held to two points. Senior post Megan Michelotti was most of Butte Central's first-half offense with 10 points, though Thatcher had a handful of thread-the-needle passes for assists.
Glendive's 2-3 zone flustered the Maroons and kept them from getting into their preferred running game.
"I think this 8 o'clock game is the toughest in the tournament to play — you sit around most of day, and we didn't come up till early this morning — so I think it's tough," Murphy said. "But Glendive played us well and all season our nemesis is teams sitting back in the 2-3 zone. We didn't attack it and when we're lackadaisical we're not very good. We played their type of game. On the positive side, we found a way to win and kids that don't play a lot stepped in and gave us a boost. That helps a ton."
What got the Maroons over the hump in the second half, when they outscored Glendive 27-12?
"I honestly don't know," said Thatcher, who emerged from the locker room with a sweatshirt hood wrapped tightly around her head and a bag of ice in her hand. "Shots ended up falling for us. I thought we boarded pretty well for the most part, but something wasn't there that we normally have so we better figure it out."
Michelotti finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds as the Maroons outrebounded the Red Devils 33-17, and Olivia Bolton contributed nine points. Sophomore post Karsen Murphy led Glendive with eight points.
Butte Central never did get its transition game going, save for a late full-tilt layups after steals. That figures to change Friday night against Hardin's relentless pressure.
"We won't have a choice, will we?" Murphy said of running. "We'll have a big one tomorrow."
Havre 43, Hamilton 39
From high anxiety to high times in a matter of moments.
That was the story Thursday for top-ranked and unbeaten Havre, which survived Hamilton with the help of a late administrative technical foul.
After Hamilton senior guard Tessa Della Silva hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 39-all and Havre senior post Danielle Wallace hit one of two free throws with 7.8 seconds to play, the Broncs brought the ball up court and called what turned out to be their final timeout with 4.3 seconds to go. Then, while attempting the throw the ball in, Hamilton called time again — and was assessed the technical after a short conference by the referees at midcourt because the Broncs were out of timeouts.
Blue Ponies (22-0) sophomore guard Kyndall Keller made both technical free throw shots, and possession returned to Havre. Wallace then made one of two after she was fouled on the in-bounds pass to seal the verdict.
"That's a bummer," Havre coach Dustin Kraske said of the technical after heaping praise on Hamilton coach Mark Albert and his program.
It was abrupt turnaround to what figured to be a dramatic ending to a game that was close throughout, as expected. Havre was the No. 2 defensive Class A team in the state, just behind Hamilton (18-7).
Neither team led by more than five after halftime. The Blue Ponies went scoreless in the second quarter after scoring 18 in the first.
"It's big-time possession basketball," Kraske said. "We talked to the kids about playing possession basketball and I thought they got a little antsy in the second quarter. But our kids made foul shots down the stretch, key rebounds down the stretch."
Keller led Havre with 14 points and was the only double-figure scorer. Lauren Ryter topped Hamilton with 12 points and Cariann Kunkel added nine.
Havre faces Browning at 6:30 p.m. Friday in a semifinal.
Browning 63, Belgrade 51
The Indians raced to a 16-point first-half lead and watched the Panthers trim it to two with still 7:32 to play after a spate of turnovers and fouls.
Thanks to accurate free-throw shooting, a tightened defense and a combined 32 points from sisters Ronnal (22) and Taylor Jordan (10), Browning held on to advance to a semifinal meeting with Havre.
"They're huge for us," Browning coach Ray Augare said of the Jordans. "The new kids that haven't been here before — it was getting them a little bit of time. Luckily most of ours girls, three of them, have been to this tournament. I thought they handled it pretty well. We just need to play a little better defense and know where the shooters are."
After leading by a point after the first quarter, Browning led by 16 late in the second quarter and 38-23 at intermission. The Indians scored fast-break points and dominated Belgrade in rebounding (20-8).
In the second half, Browning picked up quick fouis and the Panthers matched the Indians in rebounding. It was 47-42 after three quarters and a two-point game when Belgrade's Gabby Weber hit a 3-pointer to open the scoring in the final quarter.
But Browning answered with three straight baskets and Belgrade would get no closer than five the rest of the way.
Olivia Hall added 14 points for the Indians. Kiah Hohenstein had 19 points and Weber 16 for the Panthers.
"We got things going and some of the girls picked up fouls and we went to the bench," Augare said. "But the biggest thing I thought that Hohenstein girl we let her get away from us on a couple occasions. And then a couple times I think we got tuckered out and didn't push the ball as much."