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'We just had it in us': Momentum, belief propelled Dillon boys to Class A championship

Posted at 10:26 AM, Mar 14, 2024

BUTTE — Exactly one game into its playoff run at the Western A divisional tournament in Butte, and the Dillon boys basketball team was suddenly on the cusp of postseason elimination.

A 51-49 loss to Columbia Falls in the opening round sent the Beavers into the consolation bracket where anything less than two straight wins would mean last season's Class A runners-up wouldn't be returning to the state tournament.

First-year head coach Jeff Edwards made the mission clear to his team after that deflating loss to the Wildcats — regroup, dig in and find a way to book a return trip to Butte.

"It didn't matter how we got there," said junior Carter Curnow. "If you get there, you get there."

The Beavers proceeded to reel off three straight wins — including a 63-59 win over Columbia Falls in the consolation final — to emerge as the Western A's No. 3 seed.

The following week at state Dillon pulled past Billings Central and Southwest A foe Hamilton to set the stage for a championship rematch with a Lewistown squad that had struggled in the regular season but went on to win the Eastern A and seemed to be personifying the concept of "peaking at the right time."

Toppling a reigning champion is a tall task, but most of Dillon's team had already experienced that feeling in football last fall when the Beavers dealt Lewistown a 26-14 semifinal defeat to stymie the Golden Eagles' flight toward a repeat bid.

That football win paired with the lingering sting of last year's state basketball championship loss to the Golden Eagles provided ample fuel and momentum for a Dillon team that was looking to replicate what Lewistown had accomplished last year by claiming the State A football and basketball crowns in the same year.

"To us back there with that team was something that really fueled our fire," said Dillon sophomore Cohen Hartman. "Everybody had that mentality that we needed to go get this one back."

"It definitely fired us up," said Dillon junior Kyler Engellant. "Just that rivalry, we beat (Lewistown) in football too. And just that competitiveness that all our guys have. You could tell that we wanted it.

"That's really what did it for us, we just wanted it more then them."

The final state championship score of Dillon 53, Lewistown 28 certainly demonstrated that. The Beavers erased an early 6-0 deficit, built a double-digit halftime lead and then outscored Lewistown 20-6 in the third quarter to set the stage for a celebratory fourth quarter as Dillon locked up its 11th title in program history.

A few weeks ago, the Beavers had to play two straight win-or-go-home games to secure a backdoor entrance to the state tournament. But even with their backs against the wall, Dillon still held fast to its championship aspirations.

"We just had it in us," said Engellant, who led Dillon with 15 points and 10 rebounds in the championship. "We've worked so hard, all the hours we've put in. We didn't want to end our season at divisionals.

"We just had to play our best basketball, and I think that's exactly what we did."

The end result was Dillon claiming the State A football and basketball championships in the same academic year for the first time since 2016-17, back when Troy Andersen was a high school senior.

"It's pretty special," said Engellant of emulating what Andersen's teams did seven years ago. "Obviously Troy's a guy everybody looks up to and just being in that conversation is amazing."

The momentum from seizing a football title carried over into basketball season for the Beavers. For the players who were on both squads, chasing that championship feeling proved to be a winning strategy.

"Winning state is a completely different feeling," said Curnow. "It's something that you've worked so hard for and it's the main goal. When you work so hard for something for so long and you actually win one, it's a completely different feeling."