BOZEMAN – Hardin used 11 unanswered points midway through the second quarter to pull away from Lewistown in the semifinals of the Class A boys state tournament in Bozeman Friday night. The 47-32 win puts the Bulldogs in the state championship game for the first time in 21 years.
“It’s been long overdue,” Hardin head coach Andrew RoundFace said of the drought. “We’ve had a lot of great athletes come through Hardin High School, lot of great coaches, too, it’s just never been our time. I feel like it is now. It’s a big deal to the town, to the community, to our reservation — it’s really a big deal. I don’t think you can find anybody else back in Hardin.”
The Bulldog defense took control of the game early on, forcing 12 first half turnovers from Lewistown that led to 14 Hardin points, more than the Eagles’ first half point total.
“We just wanted to keep the pressure on them,” RoundFace said. “They’re a good shooting team, we couldn’t give them any space. We wanted to really put the pressure on, get them frustrated a little bit, and force them into turnovers. That’s what we’ve been up to this whole tournament. We didn’t want to change our gameplan, we just wanted to pick up the intensity another notch.”
Famous Lefthand dazzled the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse crowd, sending multiple defenders stumbling with his deadly crossover. Lefthand also took on the task of defending Lewistown star forward Jaden Graham, who he held to just seven points.
“I was just watching what he was doing (Thursday), and it was the same thing he was doing (Friday),” Lefthand said of the matchup with Graham. “I just tried to jump out in between screens, just do everything possible to stop him.”
“Famous did an excellent job,” RoundFace said. “But I’d honestly have to give it up to the whole team. They ran him off so many screens, and we had to switch a couple of times, but Famous did a majority of the work, and he did an excellent job. We knew their offense ran through (Graham), so we had to take him out of the equation.
“The crowd is amazing. They’ve always been amazing, and they follow us everywhere,” RoundFace said of the Bulldogs’ rowdy fans. “There’s no question they’re the greatest fans in the state. Having them here really gives us a lot of energy. It feels like a home game for us.”
David Evans was the only player in double figures, scoring 11 points for Hardin. Lefthand had nine points, five rebounds and two steals.
Hardin moves on to the state title game where they will face a familiar foe — Billings Central. Hardin and Central played a combined five overtimes in their two matchups during the regular season.
“We know who their shooters are, we know who does what,” RoundFace said of the matchup. “I think it’ll be a good showdown because there’s not much to hide from each other. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so it’s going to be a really good championship game (Saturday).”
Lewistown moves to loser-out action Saturday morning and will face one-loss Hamilton.
Billings Central 66, Browning 51
For the third straight year Billings Central will be playing for the Class A state title. They ran past Browning Friday night in Bozeman, 66-51.
“I thought we did a great job of grinding things out,” Billings Central head coach Jim Stergar said. “Our guys hung around, hit some big shots, got on the offensive glass and did a nice job of rebounding the basketball. Chrishon, late in the game, took over getting to the rim. I thought our kids came up with big shots, timely shots, to keep us in it, to keep that lead growing little bit by little bit. To grind out a victory like that is all I can ask for our guys.”
Billings Central closed the first half on a 15-1 run, giving the Rams a 10-point lead heading into the break. Central kept their foot on the gas in the third quarter. Chrishon Dixon knocked down a triple from straight away to close the third quarter and give the Rams their biggest advantage of the night, 50-32.
For the second night in a row, Dixon wowed the crowd with his ball handling abilities. With Browning applying pressure to try to cut into the Central lead, Dixon became a one-man press break. Dixon was in constant attack mode, collapsing the defense on his penetration, drawing fouls, and kicking out for open looks.
“When (Tyree) Whitcomb gets in a little foul trouble it gets him out of rhythm a little bit. Chrishon just puts so much pressure on the defense, and when he’s got it going with that confidence it’s tough to really stay in front of the kid. When you try and throw a couple of guys in front of him, he makes that good pass,” Stergar said of his star point guard.
Dixon finished with game-highs of 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Sam Gray added 12 for the Rams. Nathanial Stiffarm, a transfer from Billings Senior, led Browning with 15.
Billings Central will square off with Hardin in the championship game. The two previous meetings between the Rams and Bulldogs have combined for five overtimes. If that’s a precursor for Saturday night, another instant classic is in store.
“I think it would be fitting if we went to four or five overtimes,” Stergar said of the championship game with Hardin. “I don’t know if we’re deep enough to handle that, so hopefully we get it done in regulation.
“It’s just about our guys getting in the right frame of mind, taking this night and celebrate for a couple minutes, and turn the page and get focused on what we need to do next,” Stergar said. “We’re playing a team that we know really well, they know us really well. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. We respect the heck out of the Hardin Bulldogs and what they’ve done and what they do. It’s the team we want to play, and hopefully that’s the way they feel about us.”
Browning moves to loser-out action where they will face Frenchtown Saturday morning.