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Eastern A boys: Lewistown knocks off Billings Central, completes divisional three peat

Posted at 7:06 PM, Feb 24, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-24 21:40:24-05

BILLINGS — A big second-quarter run gave Billings Central a big lead — and all the momentum — in Saturday’s Eastern A boys divisional championship game at First Interstate Arena.

But the Rams learned that unseating a defending champion is more difficult than it might seem.

Lewistown, which won all of six regular-season games, beat Central 35-34 in a low-scoring defensive struggle to win its third consecutive divisional crown and advance to the state tournament again as a No. 1 seed.

Eastern A boys: Lewistown knocks off Billings Central, completes divisional three peat

The Eagles came into the year having to make up for the departures of Royce Robinson, who graduated, and Fischer Brown, who transferred to a prep school in Utah. That duo was huge in the team’s undefeated run to the state championship last year, the program's first since 1979.

But this year's makeshift group, hindered with injuries all season, overcame the Rams with defense, timely plays and hard-nosed will.

A 14-0 run in the second quarter allowed Central to build a 23-13 lead. Both Kyler Northrop and Darcy Merchant Jr. hit a pair of 3s, and Northrop added a baseline dunk to highlight the barrage. Lewistown didn’t score in the quarter until less than a minute remained before halftime.

But the Eagles gradually chipped away at their deficit, and consecutive baskets by Maxx Ray, the last of which came off a Rams turnover with 56 seconds left in the third quarter, put Lewistown up 28-27.

From there it was a battle. The teams traded the lead a couple times in the fourth — Central jumped back ahead 34-33 on a basket from Howie Martin with 1:20 left, but after the Rams missed two free throws Lewistown’s Ray corralled his own miss and floated in a one-hander from 12 feet to give the Eagles the advantage again at 35-34 with 48 seconds remaining.

Neither team scored again. Ray, playing with a heavy brace over the right wrist he broke during the football season, made the game's biggest basket in one of the game's biggest moments.

“He’s been doing that since he was 8 years old. He’s never been afraid of the moment or the big shot,” Lewistown coach Scott Sparks told MTN Sports. “He’s finally feeling good. That wrist has caused him a lot of problems all year.

“This 10 days between now and state is going to be big for him to get that wrist even more healthy. I think he would have been the best player in the conference had he been healthy this year. Unfortunately for him football took a toll on him, but now we’re starting to see the Maxx we expected to see at the beginning of the year.”

Brody Jenness stole the ball from Northrop with under 10 seconds left to thwart the last best chance Central had to reclaim the lead.

Ray led Lewistown with 14 points. Jordan Jensen had 10, including third-quarter 3-pointer that pared the Eagles’ deficit to 27-23.

Merchant had 17 points and five rebounds for Central, which will head to state as the No. 2 seed from the East. Kyler Northrop, who hit 1,000 points for his career in the first quarter, had 11 points.

Neither team shot well from the foul line: Central went 2 for 6 while the Eagles were 2 for 11.

"We did what we were supposed to do this weekend, and that is to punch our ticket to state," Rams coach Jim Stergar said. "Whether we won gold or silver tonight, that trophy will be used as a doorstop. The real hardware is handed out in two weeks.

"We've gone into state tournaments placing first, second, third and fourth. I can't even remember which years they were. We love our team. we have a tough team that works very hard, and we will be ready to play in (the state) tournament."

Earlier Saturday, Glendive laid claim to the third-place trophy with a 67-63 overtime victory over Havre. Both teams will advance to the state tournament, the Red Devils rallied late in the fourth and then took control in OT.

Shann McPherson's 12 points led four players in double figures for Glendive. Tre Gary had 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for the Blue Ponies.

Saturday loser-out scores

Glendive 59, Miles City 53

Havre 83, Hardin 58