MISSOULA -- Jeff Bellach doesn't want his Manhattan Christian boys basketball team to get stagnant in the half court. The defending Class C state champion coach would prefer his Eagles run, and fans at Dahlberg Arena saw why on Wednesday evening at the State C tournament.
Christian went on a 23-0 run in the final five minutes of the third quarter, the majority of points coming off steals and in transition, downing Melstone 70-38 in the process.
The final score was lopsided, but prior to the run, Melstone had cut the Eagles' lead to 32-30 with less than five minutes remaining in the third. When Sam Leep, who scored a game-high 25 points and had four steals, three rebounds and two assists, tipped in a rebound and got fouled, it was the beginning of the end for the Broncs.
Leep scored eight straight points at the beginning of the run, then dished underneath to Josiah Amunrud for an easy bucket that put Manhattan Christian ahead 44-30, forcing a Jason Grebe timeout from the Melstone bench. The Eagles went on to outscore the Broncs 24-6 in the quarter.
"We went on a good run there. (There was) some experience and leadership from the guys that have been there in that situation, they kind of buckled in," said Bellach, who has Manhattan Christian in the state semifinals for the fourth consecutive year. "We would get up 10, we didn’t shoot it great — we took a few out-of-character shots, just a little nerves, first game at the state tournament kind of things. We still have a pretty young team. We have some guys that have played a lot of state tournament basketball, but we’re also putting some freshmen out there. It took a little bit to get in the flow."
"Melstone played hard, they were patient on offense and we had to be patient on defense a little bit, had to work it out," he continued. "We want to run, we want to get up and go and we try not to get in the half court, but when we do, we have to execute. I was proud of the way the guys did there."
Leep made six of 16 field goals, including four 3-pointers, while also knocking down an impressive nine of 11 free throws. Amunrud added 16 points and Caidin Hill chipped in with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, flirting with a triple-double.
The Eagles connected on 23 of 60 shots, not great according to Bellach, but converted on 17 of 23 attempts at the free throw line.
Melstone trailed 14-7 after the opening quarter and slowed the pace in the second period, finding good shots on offense and limiting the Eagles' fast-break chances. Each team scored 17 second-quarter points as Manhattan Christian led 31-24 at the half.
But the Broncs quickly chipped away at the lead to start the third, with Shayden Cooke scoring two of his team-high 18 points to cut the lead to 32-30. But Bellach calmed his team, which hasn't lost a Class C game all season.
"I thought overall we were really patient. I thought they were going to try to halt the tempo a bit in the half court and take a little time off before they attacked," Bellach said of Melstone. "There was a stretch in the second quarter where we weren’t very good defensively, we were kind of flat-footed, we weren’t winning our battle with our man and we were helping when we didn’t need to, but they fought through that."
Wednesday's win sets up a semifinal that fans were talking about when the state brackets were first released, pitting the Eagles against Eastern C champion Scobey, which downed Belt in Wednesday's third game of the tournament.
"They’re good. They’re what they’ve been for, the past four years we’ve seen them (at the state tournament). We played them four years ago at (Montana State), and we actually haven’t played them at the state tournament since then, but we play them in the summer ... so we know each other pretty well," Bellach said. "It will be a fun night. The guys, I know they’re excited to get the opportunity to play them, and I’m sure they’re the same. We’ll put a plan together and rest up and be ready to roll."
Scobey and Manhattan Christian tip off in the final game at Dahlberg Arena on Thursday, scheduled for 8 p.m. Melstone will meet Belt in a 10:30 a.m. loser-out contest.
Scobey 51, Belt 23
Caden Handran is done playing for third-place trophies.
After three consecutive trips to the Class C state consolation game, Handran is prepared to take his Scobey Spartans a different direction -- to Saturday night's state title game.
That goal is one step closer after Handran scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had four assists, four blocks and three steals to lead the Spartans to a 51-23 rout over Belt in the Class C boys basketball state tournament on Wednesday evening.
"It feels good to get the first one out of the way, really," said Handran. "To see the ball go through the hoop a few times, last year we didn’t shoot very well in the first game, to get the atmosphere of the gym a little, I think we’ll be rolling now. I think we’ll be good."
Scobey wasted little time making a statement in Wednesday's opening round, taking a 27-6 lead into the halftime locker room, while not letting the Huskies score a point in the second quarter. Belt went more than 11 minutes without scoring between the second and third periods. Scobey, meanwhile, had no trouble lighting up the scoreboard, though the Spartans showed patience on many of their non-fast break possessions.
Handran was joined by Brayden Cromwell in double digits -- he scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds -- while Aidan Fishell had eight points and Jayce Tande six in the win. Scobey was 19-of-33 shooting, while Belt made only 10 of 38 field goals and was 1-for-13 shooting beyond the 3-point line.
"We’re all in the gym all the time. We’re playing all the time, and not just games for fun, but we’re competitive because we know what it takes to be back," Handran said. "We have to be competitive, come back and I think we all know what we have to do."
The statement win was especially significant for Handran, a junior, who made his name known two years ago when his buzzer beater in the first round sent Scobey past Melstone. But the Spartans met the Broncs again in the consolation game, falling 46-39. Scobey finished third a year ago, defeating Eastern C rival Fairview 51-43.
"I was out there watching the championship game after the third-place game (last year) and it was a weird feeling that you could be out there. It’s a weird feeling in your gut and just motivation for the summer and stuff, getting in the gym," said Handran. "I want to be in that championship game. I don’t want to be in that third-place game, I’ve been there the last two years so I don’t want to play in that again.
"It’s been a goal of ours, just one game at a time, really, is what coach says, but we all know what we need to do. Just one more game and then we’re in that game. I don’t want to lose the next game and play for third. It’s not a good feeling playing in that third-place game. I know you get a trophy and stuff, but it’s not the right color."
Also not lost on Handran is the familiarity of the state tournament bracket. Many of this year's teams are perennial powers in the final weekend of the year. Four of the teams in this weekend's tournament -- Fairview, Manhattan Christian, Melstone and Scobey -- were at state a year ago, while Belt was at state the year prior.
"I know a lot of the kids, a lot of the players, and I know a lot of the teams, what they do and stuff. It’s really familiar coming back to the same tournament — different place, but same teams," he said.
Scobey advances to Thursday's late semifinal game against defending champion Manhattan Christian. Belt, which was led by Bridger Vogl's seven points in Wednesday's loss, will meet the Melstone Broncs on Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m.
Fort Benton 48, Twin Bridges 39
It was a shot nearly three decades in the making.
Hayden Diekhans calmly slid from the left wing to the right, then waited for teammate Logan Giles to drive and kick to the lefty for a critical 3-pointer that essentially sealed Fort Benton's 48-39 win over Twin Bridges in the Class C boys basketball state tournament.
Tied at 39-all with 1:30 to play, Jace Thompson had a clean look at a 3-pointer, but the shot fell short and bounced into the corner, where Diekhans tracked down the offensive rebound. About 20 seconds later, he splashed in the shot that gave the Longhorns the lead for good.
"That was just me going to the open spot, a teammate finding me and knocking down an open 3-pointer," said Diekhans, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds. "My teammates trusted me, I missed a few at the start, but I knew I was going to knock that down. I just kept on shooting."
Diekhans was 1-of-6 shooting beyond the 3-point line but made the only one the Longhorns needed.
In a game where neither team led by more than five points until the final minute, where the Longhorns calmly sank six consecutive free throws to end the game on a 9-0 run, it was defense and patience that was on display at Dahlberg Arena. Twin Bridges opened a 5-0 lead in the first quarter behind a Bryce Nye 3-pointer and Nye assist to Tate Smith, but the Longhorns' Diekhans boys -- Hayden and Garett -- had six points in the quarter to cut the deficit to 12-8 after one period of play.
William Ullery scored the first four points of the second quarter, then Hayden Diekhans' jumper on a fast break gave Fort Benton its first lead at 14-12. Garet Diekhans scored four straight points moments later to extend the lead to five, 18-13, forcing a Josh Keller timeout. Twin re-gathered itself to tie the game at 20 with seconds remaining in the half, but Hayden Diekhans' steal and layup at the buzzer gave the Longhorns a 22-20 advantage.
"We knew they could shoot, they have good players, good point guard leading the attack, a good finisher," said Hayden Diekhans. "No. 3 (Charlie Kruer) is a good shooter. We just had to play good defense."
After a back-and-forth third quarter saw Twin Bridges take a 31-29 lead, Fort Benton scored the first six points of the fourth, relying on a physical defense to force the Falcons into tough looks.
"We always trust in each other, defensively we’re always locked in. We always know where the ball is, know where the other defenders are, we’re just going to play," said Hayden Diekhans. "It was a little physical, but we don’t mind physicality. It was a little different atmosphere being at state, first time in 28 years (for Fort Benton)."
Nye scored the final eight points for Twin Bridges, including a pair of free throws that tied the game at 39-39 with 2:31 to play. Neither team scored until Diekhans' triple gave the Horns the lead for good.
The win sets up a Thursday semifinal against Fairview, which defeated Jordan in the tournament opener on Wednesday.
"That Schriver kid is a hell of a player," Diekhans said of Fairview guard Alex Schriver, "so we’re going to have to play defense, play our game."
Fairview 47, Jordan 31
For the past three years, the Fairview boys basketball team had championship aspirations entering the state tournament, but each of those seasons the Warriors lost their opening game of the final weekend. That drought ended on Wednesday at Dahlberg Arena.
Behind 13 points from Alex Schriver and 12 from Josh Herron, the Warriors defeated Jordan 47-31 in the first game of the tournament, which runs Wednesday through Saturday. It was the first opening-round win for Fairview at state since 2015, when the Warriors finished runner-up.
"The last few years we’ve been here and lost the first game every single year, so it’s good to finally get the first win out of the way," said Herron. "Now we can focus on the next two, hopefully."
The Warriors and Mustangs traded blows in the early minutes, with Jordan's Murnion contingent -- Cole, Dawson, Douglas, Edward and Keenan -- all contributing plays. But Herron snagged a loose ball and sprinted down the court for a two-handed dunk that brought the Fairview crowd to its feet.
"That was a good feeling. I wasn’t sure I was going to get it, if they were going to catch me, but I ended up getting it," Herron said of the dunk. "I was hoping to get another one later in the game, but I didn’t. That’s alright, though."
After leading 14-11 following the first-quarter buzzer, Fairview saw its lead dwindle as Douglas Murnion scored four of his team-high 12 points in the opening half, the first on a layup, then backdoor cut that put the Mustangs ahead 16-15. But Schriver hit a 3-pointer, one of his three, moments later, and the Warriors never trailed again.
"The first half they definitely got quite a few of those (backdoor cuts) and we needed to stop that because they were keeping it close with that. The second half, we tried to really focus on that," Herron said.
"I think we weren’t communicating as well on defense, and as soon as we went into halftime we talked about it," he continued. "As soon as we started doing that, playing how we normally do, we started to pull away. They played good. They’re a good team, but we ended up playing our game in the second half and that’s what led to that."
Herron finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two blocks and two assists. Schriver had four rebounds and two assists to go with his game-high 13 points, while Cody Asbeck added seven points and a team-high nine rebounds.
Douglas Murnion led Jordan with 12 points, but didn't score in the second half. Dawson Murnion added 11 points in the loss.
Fairview advances to Thursday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal against Fort Benton, while Jordan meets Twin Bridges in a loser-out contest Thursday morning at 9 a.m.