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State A girls: Billings Central exorcises Havre demon; buzzer-beater lifts Bigfork

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Posted at 9:11 PM, Mar 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-09 00:52:19-05

BUTTE — Jetton Ailes has lived through the losses. But Friday night Ailes and her Billings Central Rams finally got over the hump against their arch state-tourney nemesis — the Havre Blue Ponies.

Central broke open a one-point game in the fourth quarter and held off Havre 56-49 in the semifinal round of the Class A girls state basketball tournament at the Civic Center to vault into the championship game for the third time in the past five seasons.

It was the fifth consecutive state tourney meeting between the teams, and Central was winless in the previous four. That included a 21-point loss in last year's semis and consecutive title-game defeats in 2021 and 2022.

Havre was trying to become the first girls team since Fairfield (2011-14) to win four straight championships.

In the late semifinal, it took two crucial plays — including a buzzer-beater — by Ava Davey to lift Bigfork past Miles City 34-32 and into the championship game.

The Valkyries won last year's Class B state title and are trying to pull off the feat of winning consecutive championships at different classifications. They entered the tournament as the presumtive favorite, and Davey's heroics made sure they still have that chance.

Billings Central 56, Havre 49

In true rivalry fashion, the Rams and Blue Ponies tussled in a tight game into the fourth quarter. The lead had changed hands eight times, but Central embarked on a 13-5 run that proved to be the deciding stretch.

Key plays included a strong drive and layup by G.G. Hastings that put the Rams ahead 44-40 with 5:53 remaining. Coral Old Bull scored on a feed from Kamryn Reinker, and that was followed by a jumper from Ryen Hadley as Central jumped up 48-42.

A three-point play by Annika Stergar with 2:59 left made it 51-42. Amaya Jarvis hit a long 3 on Havre's next possession, but Reinker essentially sealed it by going coast to coast for a layup with 1:37 left.

When it ended, Central celebrated like a team that had truly pulled a thorn from its side.

"There's been some emotional losses to that group," Ailes said. "Props to (Havre) for what they've been able to accomplish for girls basketball. ... It's just a testament to what they do up there. But it's been a long time coming and I couldn't be more proud of this group. We got it done."

Old Bull led Central with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Reinker scored 12 of her 14 points in the second half and also grabbed 14 rebounds. Stergar added 13 points and a pair of 3s.

Ariana Gary led Havre with 13 points while Jarvis had 11 points and seven boards. Emilee Chambliss scored 10 points.

In the handshake line afterward, Ailes and Havre coach Dustin Kraske — who've battled each other for years — shared an extended discussion.

"I just said thanks for making everybody better," Ailes said. "They're still going to be a phenomenal team for another ... however long he coaches there. I respect the man immensely. He's made me a better coach and I hope I've done the same."

State A girls: Billings Central outlasts Havre, Bigfork wins in buzzer-beating fashion

Bigfork 34, Miles City 32

As Bigfork's title hopes hung in the balance, Davey made the two biggest plays of the year so far.

With the game tied 32-32 and nine seconds remaining, Miles City's Heidi Phalen took an in bound pass and drove to her right toward the basket. The only thing her Phalen's way was Davey, who stepped in front and drew a charging call to give the ball back to Bigfork.

After a timeout, the ball was inbounded to Davey and she went the length of the court — as Miles City's defense worried mostly about sisters Paeten and Braden Gunlock — and shot the ball off the glass and through the net as the buzzer sounded for the game-winner.

"I saw that they had two on Braeden and two on Paeten, so I was like, 'I'm going to have (a) lane,'" Davey recounted. "I had a pretty wide-open lane, so I took it."

"I wanted to cry," Davey added. "I was so unbelievably happy and thankful for my team."

Of the charge she took on the other end, Davey said: "You just have to do what you can do best, which is play defense. I had four fouls; obviously I couldn't get another one. It was just going so fast."

Miles City was on the verge of spoiling what has been a dominant year by the Vals, and another strong game by Jillian Kanduch nearly helped pull it off. Kanduch finished with 17 points and five rebounds.

In hindsight, two Kanduch shots that went in and then inexplicably came out in the fourth quarter proved huge.

Paeten Gunlock finished with 12 points to lead Bigfork. Breaden Gunlock had seven points and six rebounds, including a free throw that tied the game at 32-32 with 20 seconds left.

Friday loser-out scores

Frenchtown 47, Browning 39

Dillon 57, Lockwood 47