MISSOULA — Joliet’s boys basketball team wasn’t supposed to be here.
The J-Hawks weren’t supposed to advance to the state tournament past teams like Roundup, which entered last week’s Southern B divisional tournament with just one loss, or Big Timber, which won the District 5B championship the week before.
But here they are, the 13-11 J-Hawks the surprise team of the eight-team field ready to tip off the State B tournament at Dahlberg Arena on Thursday.
“We’re not here just to be happy and enjoy it,” said Joliet head coach John Nelson. “We’re wanting to win basketball games. We’ve watched film and Bigfork is a very good team, but I think they’re beatable. That’s what we’ve talked about this whole week, too: ‘This isn’t just a pat on the back, be happy that your season’s over, you finished at state. You’re trying to win basketball games.’ Everybody’s surprised we’re here, and we want to surprise people even more, knock off that big monster up there.”
Bigfork is that monster entering the tournament as the favorite, the only team remaining in Class B with an unblemished record.
But to hear Nelson and assistant coach Michael Robinson talk, Joliet has just as much business being at the state tournament as the juggernaut Vikings. The J-Hawks felt they belonged at last year’s state tournament, but they lost to Lodge Grass by one point in the Southern B semifinals.
This year, they advanced as the No. 4 seed out of the Southern B, losing to Colstrip in the consolation final. Joliet started the tournament with a 69-54 loss to Lodge Grass before earning loser-out wins over St. Labre (82-69) and Roundup (39-38).
It was the Roundup win that clinched Joliet’s state-tournament berth, but it was the St. Labre win that opened eyes across the state.
Taylor Rowlison scored a school-record 46 points against the Braves, breaking the mark set by Robinson in the 2011 divisional tournament, also against St. Labre. Rowlison made nine of 13 field goal attempts and an astonishing 24 of 28 free throw attempts.
“Taylor’s like a little brother to me,” Robinson said. “I think he’s been chasing that (record) ever since it was set. That year he was with us the whole year, because his dad (Barry Rowlison) was the coach then. I think it’s huge for him. He was pretty pumped.”
“Taylor’s just a shooter,” Nelson added. “When there’s a technical foul, he’s sprinting to the free throw line, because he wants it. He’s that kid.”
As a team, Joliet made 39 of 43 free throw attempts against the Braves. Ry Olson was a perfect 11 of 11, and Brett Robinson (Michael’s younger brother) and Reed Welch were each two for two.
Rowlison, Olson and Brett Robinson make up a perceived “Big Three,” providing talent, leadership and experience to a roster short on depth. They’ll play 32 minutes per game if they’re not battling foul trouble, which has plagued the younger Robinson this season, while the J-Hawks only go about six deep.
“Those three, there’s no way they’re coming in to not win basketball games,” Michael Robinson said. “They’re coming to compete and hopefully win. You can’t walk into a basketball game thinking you’re going to lose.”
If anybody is expecting the J-Hawks to embrace the underdog role while they’re in Missoula, they can think again.
“We had some swag at the beginning of the year. I don’t know what happened to it, but we’ve got a little of it back,” Nelson said. “I think we’re better when we walk in with our chest kind of puffed out.”
Joliet and Bigfork play Thursday’s first boys game, tipping off at noon.
For updated scores and pairings from the State B boys basketball tournament, please click here.