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What I'll be watching: Conference play beginning to wind down

Keeley Bake
Posted at 5:03 PM, Jan 30, 2020

The calendar will turn to February this weekend, meaning Montana’s high school basketball district tournaments are quickly approaching.

With that comes the close of conference play. Over the final few weeks, teams will have one shot to take down their conference leader before tournaments begin.

Missoula Hellgate’s boys have continued their dominance atop the Western AA, but a crosstown rival will bring the Knights a challenge. Two teams in the Eastern AA will be battling for positioning in the middle of the conference. Another Missoula crosstown game highlights the Class AA girls slate, while one Western AA team has quite the weekend ahead.

How will Butte Central’s boys rebound after their first loss of the year? Saturday night will give the Maroons a chance to gain separation once again in the Southwest A. Libby’s boys will have a shot to take down the Northwest A leader at home. Hardin’s girls sit atop the Southeast A after beating Billings Central, but another challenger awaits.

Fairfield’s boys can gain a significant edge in the District 1B standings if they’re able to win on the road on Friday night. The Lodge Grass boys haven’t lost to a Class B team yet this season, but the Indians have a big test on Thursday night. Non-conference games highlight the girls set of games this weekend. Unbeaten Missoula Loyola gets a test at home, and unbeaten Bigfork hits the road to face a conference leader.

Melstone and Denton-Geyser-Stanford have a chance to increase their conference leads in the Class C boys standings. St. Regis and Seeley-Swan will play a non-conference game with both teams boasting double-digit wins. The biggest non-conference game of the week may be between non-conference foes in the Eastern C girls. Manhattan Christian and Melstone can get two-game leads in their conference as the season winds down.

As tournaments linger in the distance, here’s the handful of games I’ll have my eye on over the weekend.

Reminder: Scores, stats, standings, story ideas and record-breaking performances can be emailed to sports@ktvh.com.

Boys

Class AA

  • Billings Skyview was impressive in its two wins in Great Falls last weekend to move into fourth in the Eastern AA. The Falcons could potentially leapfrog another team this weekend, as they travel to third-place Bozeman. Bozeman beat Skyview, 57-50, back on Jan. 11 in Billings, and the Hawks can put a two-game gap between them and the fourth-place team in the conference.
  • Missoula Hellgate has been on an absolute tear this season and is the only unbeaten team remaining in Class AA. The Knights welcome in crosstown rival Missoula Sentinel on Friday night, though, and the Spartans pack a punch. Sentinel is 8-1 with its only loss coming on the road at Helena Capital. The Spartans have a balanced offensive attack that may be able to keep pace with the high-powered Knights.

Class A

  • Butte Central suffered its first loss of the season last Saturday against Frenchtown. This weekend brings another test for the Maroons, as they’ll host Hamilton on Saturday night. Hamilton can take sole possession of the Southwest A with a win, but the Maroons can widen the gap right back up with a victory of their own. The Maroon Activities Center will likely be packed, as it’s a meeting between two of Class A’s three teams with at least 10 wins to date.
  • Browning has gotten of to a 6-0 start in Northwest A play, but the Indians have to visit Libby on Saturday night. Libby is second in the conference and is 9-2 overall. The Loggers can bring Browning back to the pack in the Northwest A, but the Indians could all but seal a regular-season title with a win.

Class B

  • Fairfield sits atop District 1B, but Shelby is right on its tail. The Coyotes host Fairfield on Friday night, and they could potentially grab the conference lead with a win. The two teams met on Jan. 3 in Fairfield, and the Eagles came away with a 71-57 win. Since then, Shelby has acclimated Tanner Parsons back into its lineup and has a six-game win streak against Class B opponents.
  • Lodge Grass sits unbeaten in conference play and has a one-game lead over Colstrip. The two teams meet in Colstrip on Thursday night. Lodge Grass won by 27 back on Jan. 4 in Lodge Grass, and the Indians have been dominant against Class B opponents this season. Colstrip has just two losses – Lodge Grass and Huntley Project. The Colts have continued to improve as the season has worn on, so don’t be surprised if Thursday’s game is closer than the 27-point blowout nearly four weeks ago.

Class C

  • Melstone is one of four remaining unbeaten Class C boys teams and can essentially clinch the District 4C regular-season title with a win at Jordan on Friday night. It won’t come easy, though, as the previous meeting in Melstone went to overtime before the Broncs pulled away. Jordan is second in the conference and can keep hope of the regular-season title alive by holding court at home.
  • Denton-Geyser-Stanford has climbed to the top of District 8C over the past few weeks, and the Bearcats can add a little cushion from at least one of their challengers this weekend. DGS will travel to Roy-Winifred on Saturday night with the Outlaws trailing the Bearcats by just one game in the standings. DGS had a loss to 3-10 Winnett-Grass Range last week and can’t afford another letdown with such little time remaining.
  • Two challengers for the Western C title will do battle on Saturday, as 11-1 Seeley-Swan hosts 11-1 St. Regis. Seeley-Swan has looked like the superior team in District 13C, while St. Regis’ only loss this season has come to District 14C foe Plains. The Blackhawks have a victory over Plains and can make it a sweep of District 14C’s top teams with a win.

Girls

Class AA

  • Helena Capital reigns supreme in the Western AA, but there’s a tight battle for second place. Missoula Sentinel will travel to Missoula Hellgate on Friday night for the first edition of their crosstown rivalry this season, and both teams currently boast 8-1 records.. These two and Capital have separated themselves as the top three teams in the conference, but how will the hierarchy shape out?
  • The fourth-place team in the Western AA is Kalispell Glacier. The Wolfpack have a whale of a weekend ahead of them. On Friday, Glacier will host Helena High, which could jump Glacier in the standings if it were to beat the Wolfpack. Glacier gets the other half of the Helena schools on Saturday, hosting unbeaten Helena Capital. It’s crucial for Glacier to come away with one victory at home this weekend.

Class A

  • Even after handing Billings Central its first loss, there’s no time off for Hardin. The Bulldogs visit Laurel on Friday night in another showcase of two strong teams in the Southeast A. Laurel is 1-1 in conference play and could jump into second by handing Hardin its second conference loss. Hardin, though, can finish its Southeast A slate at 5-1 and atop the standings.
  • Dillon will travel to Frenchtown on Saturday night with an unbeaten record in Southwest A play. Frenchtown is 4-2 and can keep hopes of a regular-season title alive with a victory, but Dillon is looking to essentially make it a two-team race with Hamilton. The previous meeting in Dillon was a low-scoring affair, seeing the Beavers prevail 22-19. Frenchtown will need to find a way to put more points on the board on Saturday night if it hopes to win.

Class B

  • Missoula Loyola’s girls are still unbeaten and cruising atop District 6B. They’ll face the top team in District 7B on Saturday, as Bigfork travels south to play the Breakers. The top teams in District 7B have taken turns atop the standings, meaning Loyola can make a statement to the rest of the Western B with a victory on its home floor.
  • Big Timber’s girls are the only other unbeaten team in Class B, and the Sheepherders have a test ahead of them on Thursday night. District 5B-leader Big Timber visits District 4B-leading Columbus in a showdown of two of the Southern B’s top teams. The two teams met in Big Timber on Jan. 2, with the Herders winning, 41-34.

Class C

  • The only two teams in the Eastern C with double-digit wins as of Jan. 27 meet on Friday night, as Westby-Grenora hosts Scobey. The Thunder lead District 2C and the Spartans lead District 3C, and we’ll likely see these teams deep in the Eastern C divisional tournament and possibly beyond. Westby-Grenora owns a 47-41 win in Scobey back on Dec. 7, the Spartans’ only loss this season. It should be an entertaining show on Friday night.
  • Manhattan Christian is looking to all but lock up the District 11C regular-season title, as the Eagles visit West Yellowstone on Friday night. West Yellowstone, though, is second in the conference and can take the lead with a win on its home court. The Wolverines have just one loss this season – a 10-point defeat at Manhattan Christian just a week ago. Revenge sure would be sweet for West Yellowstone.
  • Melstone can take a step toward locking up the District 4C regular-season crown on Saturday, as the Broncs will visit second-place Wibaux. Melstone is one of four unbeaten teams left in Class C, while Wibaux has just one loss – a 30-point beatdown in Melstone. The Broncs have aced every test up to this point, but a road test at the conference’s No. 2 team will be their toughest.