BILLINGS — Big Timber, the wait is over.
For the first time since 1981, the Sheepherders are State B girls basketball champions. Big Timber defeated Columbus 46-26 on Saturday night inside First Interstate Arena at MetraPark for the program's third state basketball title and first since the program went back-to-back in 1980 and 1981. The win also capped a 24-0 season for Big Timber.
"I'm almost speechless. I don't know if it's sunk in yet," Big Timber head coach Kim Finn said. "(It's going to be) a huge party. We're so excited to celebrate with everybody. They have supported us so much this year. Everybody is just ready to have a good time and relax. It's been a fun year, but it's been a challenging and draining year."
PHOTOS: Big Timber caps unbeaten season with 1st state title since 1981
"It feels so good. We have worked so hard for this. I remember in third grade talking with the seniors I'm playing with now. We wanted to win a state championship, and we did it. We did it undefeated and we did it for our community," Big Timber senior Hailee Brandon said. "Our community is so helpful with all of us. They come to every game, they donate stuff to us. It's just unbelievable we could do it for everybody."
Columbus jumped on top early, holding a 15-9 lead late in the first half. Big Timber finished the second quarter with a flurry to tie the game at 15 at the break. The Herders continued that run in the third quarter and led 30-23 after three. The lead grew as big as 20 in the fourth quarter. It seemed that Big Timber needed to shake off the early-game jitters and settle in. Once the Herders did, they controlled the game.
"In the first half we were a little bit stale. I don't know what was going on. Second half we came to play. I just told the girls, 'This is our game. You just have to go out and play and relax.' It's just such a good group of girls. They work hard," Finn said. "We're a team. We're a family. We do everything together. No arguing, we're for each other all the time. There's no drama. It was a great year. This is a perfect ending to a perfect year."
"The scoring was low and Columbus was trying to slow down the game, so we just wanted to get really, really intense defense without fouling, which I tend to have trouble with," Brandon said with a laugh. "We just wanted to not foul, get some steals and push the ball up. As soon as we do that, all of our momentum is there and we've just got to stay intense."
Big Timber's offense gets plenty of credit, and rightfully so, but the Herders' defense has been a staple all season. Saturday night was no different, as Columbus struggled to get open looks for the majority of the game.
Brandon was once again phenomenal for Big Timber. She had 14 points, three rebounds and four assists and three steals. Two of those steals came during Big Timber's massive run to end the third quarter and open the fourth and essentially put the game out of reach.
"She just has such tenacity. She has such competitiveness that she wants to win so badly. She'll do whatever she can to get it done. She's a great player. She worked really hard this summer and wanted to be better. Last year she was an OK player, an average player but couldn't get it done when we needed it. She worked really hard, all the girls did, but she really, really improved and helped our team become where we are," Finn said.
Big Timber was the only unbeaten team entering the State B tournament. The Herders didn't feel the pressure, though.
"We kind of never really talked about it. It weighed on us a little last year, but since we were undefeated for so long last year, carrying it over kind of didn't weigh on us a lot. We were just really focused on winning and we hate losing. That's all that really matters is just winning," Brandon said.
Emily Cooley added 10 points and seven rebounds for Big Timber, while Bailey Finn added nine, including a huge 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter that led to another Big Timber onslaught. The Herders out-scored Columbus 31-11 in the second half to defeat the Cougars for the fourth time this season.
Columbus finished just 8 of 32 from the floor, while Big Timber shot nearly 50% (17 of 35).