(Story by Casey Conlon)
BILLINGS – Sixteen teams will take the Rimrock Auto Arena floor on Thurday. But just three of them have played there this season.
The girls at Billings Senior and West would be legitimate title contenders anywhere, but this home court advantage may help Senior’s boys the most.
“Sleeping in own beds, not eating in restaurants every night,” referenced Broncs coach Drew Haws as a couple of advantages.
Broncs guard Connor Kieckbusch took a few steps deeper.
“Playing all the crosstown games there, practicing a couple times there, so I think all that helps us,” he said.
The Broncs are the only Billings boys team at state, qualifying for the first time in six years.
“Feels great,” Haws acknowledged. “It’s a new season and anything can happen in a state tournament.”
Case in point — as the 4th seed from the East, Senior opens with the West champion, Missoula Sentinel, a team the Broncs beat back in December.
“I think it’s important. I think it’ll be in the back of the guys’ minds that we did beat them earlier,” said Hawes. “Certainly a lot has changed and we can’t put too much stock into it.”
“Teams can get better,” Kieckbusch cautioned. “We feel like we’ve gotten better, and I’m assuming they have too, so we’re just gonna be ready. But it definitely helps that we’ve seen them before.”
The game won’t lack star power. Sentinel’s Sam Bieghle is the state’s leading scorer, Kieckbusch is No. 2.
Kola Bad Bear is Class AA’s top-scoring girl. Almost no team can match her size, but one of them might be tomorrow’s first round opponent, Helena Capital.
“Yeah, they have some pretty good size,” said Kola’s sister and teammate Courtney. “I personally know Taylor Sullivan and she’s a great player. I think she’s going to be a challenge for us.”
“She’s really tall and athletic, and I know they have plenty of good guards and they have other posts,” said Kola. “We played them in summer. I don’t recall the scores exactly, but it was close.”
Senior has to play Capital after failing to down West in the divisional championship. But after being down 10 with four minutes to play, the Broncs got as close as one. So the game had its merit.
“I mean, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but it definitely taught us to fight hard when we’re down in situations like that,” said Courtney.
“Nothing came our way, like the calls, nothing was falling our way, but everything happens for a reason, we’ll find out,” Kola said. “You never know – maybe we might meet them again.”
The win was West’s 12th straight, the longest AA streak this season.
“It’s pretty good to feel this,” Bears guard Ambreya Windy Boy said. “I know I was in tears when that buzzer went off.”
Windy Boy was named tournament MVP as the senior played her best stretch of the season. That gives West a wealth of options.
“We have five girls at anytime on the floor who can score, and it’s tough to guard us,” said coach Charlie Johnson.
The Bears have the deepest team in the state. That’s their key to a title on Saturday.
“Hard work pays off,” said Windy Boy, “and we can do anything together as long as we work together as a team.”
“We understand that this is the last time that this group is going to be together,” Johnson said. “It’s something special that we want to take into the state tournament, and understand that it’s something we can share forever.”