BILLINGS — Kamden Hilborn was in the emergency room until 3 a.m. Friday receiving fluids and treatment for a bout of food poisoning that started raging during Carroll College’s road game earlier the previous night at Montana Tech.
Hilborn played only 19 minutes against the Orediggers, about 15 minutes shy of her per-game average, the first sign that she wasn’t well. Hilborn then spent the entire next day sleeping in a Billings hotel room and missed practice as her team prepared for Saturday’s matinee showdown with Frontier Conference rival — and we do mean rival — Rocky Mountain College.
Hilborn, a former star at Helena High, did return to the lineup against Rocky, though not 100%.
“I still feel very weak. But I got to play, which is nice,” Hilborn said. “I felt a little bit like myself again.”
Kloie Thatcher was certainly herself again, and the Battlin’ Bears got the better of No. 11-ranked Carroll. Thatcher led a huge scoring output as the Bears jumped to a 19-point lead in the first half and held on for a 58-51 victory at the Fortin Center. The win was significant: In the biggest game in the early stage of the Frontier women’s basketball season, the Bears (12-4, 4-0) took sole possession of first-place over Carroll (12-5, 3-1) and Montana Western (15-2, 3-1) as they try to defend their conference title.
Thatcher, previously a standout at Butte Central, had the hot hand early, hitting four 3-pointers in the first half on the way to scoring a game-high 22 points. Carroll, with a below-par Hilborn still doing her thing, started to claw back at the end of the second quarter and eventually trailed by just two points toward the end of the third. But it wasn’t enough.
(To watch highlights of both the men’s and women’s games between the Bears and Saints, see the video above.)
Rocky fired the first salvo of the season in what has become an intense rivalry between the Bears and Carroll in the past couple seasons. Rocky won three of their four meetings last year — including a 59-56 triumph in a thrilling championship of the Frontier tournament. Three of the past five matchups have been decided by seven or fewer points.
Carroll had won three of the previous four league tournament titles, but Rocky denied the Saints while winning its first since 1988.
If you’re looking for the true faces of the rivalry, look no further than Thatcher and Hilborn, a pair of dynamic guards both in their final year of college eligibility and both known for being the pacesetter of their respective squads. It's a familiar refrain.
Here's Rocky coach Wes Keller on Thatcher: “She’s the heart and soul of our team. I love the kid to death. I’m really proud of her. Kloie hasn’t been playing her best up until this point, and kudos to her for really stepping up when our team needed it.”
And this is Carroll coach Rachelle Sayers on Hilborn: "She's our leader emotionally, mentally and physically in all aspects. She wasn’t quite the Kamden Hilborn that you expect to see, but she was the Kamden Hilborn that we know, which is tough as can be. She was going to go out there and battle.”
Thatcher and Hilborn have a history that dates back to when they started playing against each other in middle school. Thatcher grew up in Butte and Hilborn lived in Montana City, and the two went head to head in travel ball tournaments and later in junior high.
After high school, Hilborn left MSU for Carroll, where her brother was starred on the track and field team as a pole vaulter and where her father is a member of the athletic hall of fame. Hilborn will perhaps be there one day as well — earlier this season she set the Saints record for career assists.
“She just leads their team really well. She sets up their offense, you know. She's their main go-to, has the ball in her hands quite a bit and just kind of gets them going when it comes to their offense,” Thatcher said of Hilborn.
“I think she plays pretty hard every single game quite honestly.”
Thatcher has been at Rocky since the beginning of her college career and topped 1,000 points with the Bears last February, which was only a prelude to them winning a long-awaiting conference title. Rocky went on to the Round of 8 at the NAIA tournament, marking what was the most successful women’s basketball season in school history.
Hilborn was guarding Thatcher for much of Saturday’s game, and Thatcher had the upper hand as she hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer to help build a lead. Hilborn didn't go quietly, and finished with a game-high seven assists to go with five rebounds and six points. Yet the deficit was too much.
“I think this was a tough one for us to lose, because I think we've been looking forward to this rematch all year,” Hilborn said. “There's a lot of emotion around it and a lot of emotion with the upperclassmen in our group, just kind of knowing the history of last year and feeling like we let that one go.
“So a lot of emotions run high. And it's always a physical game. Both teams get a little bit chippy as the game goes on. That's just kind of the history of it. And I don't think we were prepared enough for that today.”
Thatcher got a wonderful bit of help from Ky Buell, Dominique Stephens and Mackenzie Dethman, all of whom made key shots for Rocky down the stretch.
Jamie Pickens added 13 points for Carroll. Sienna Swannack and Genesis Wilkinson each scored 10.
It was the first regular season meeting between the teams this year, and the fervor wasn’t lacking. Rocky and Carroll are scheduled to play twice more: Jan. 26 and Feb. 11, both times in Helena.
“It's awesome. You could feel the intensity from the tip, and I think what happened from last year carried over to this year, which isn't a bad thing,” Thatcher said. “It's great. It brought us our energy.”
As for Rocky being alone in first place in the Frontier Conference?
“It sounds pretty good,” Thatcher said smiling. “No complaints here.”