BILLINGS — Wes Holmquist has waited nearly four months for a performance like this.
Holmquist’s Bozeman Hawks throttled Helena High 65-40 Thursday evening in the opening round of the State AA boys basketball tournament. Bozeman jumped out to a double-digit lead, then held off a Helena High rally to take a 16-9 lead after the opening quarter.
The offensive prowess for Bozeman was on display in the first 16 minutes, with the Hawks shooting 55 percent from the floor and going 3-5 from the 3-point line.
“I think one reason I was excited about divisionals last week, they got to play tournament games, so I felt like we were really clean (Thursday),” said Holmquist. “Usually that first game at state is kind of the nerves, but I think they got those out of the way last weekend. I thought we did a really good job of executing on both ends of the floor from the get-go.”
Bozeman never trailed in the game, riding offense from post Ryan Lonergan to the early lead. Lonergan finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, while taking advantage of double- and even triple-teams against teammate Mack Anderson.
“Ryan is just solid. He’s as solid of a post player as there is in the state. He’s so well balanced,” said Holmquist. “Mack draws so much attention and that’s where he’s been able to take advantage of that and he’s a smart player. He’s a good rebounder, he moves well without the ball and frankly if they’re going to put two or three guys on Mack, Ryan will make them pay for it.”
Holmquist also credited Ryan and Robbie Simpson for their play in the opening round. The brothers combined for 18 points and eight assists, with Robbie dishing six of those. Holmquist says there’s “an obvious genetic connection between those two” and each is playing with increased confidence since Ryan returned to the lineup after missing nearly eight weeks during the season.
But it was the defense Holmquist seemed most pleased with. The Hawks held Helena to 37 percent shooting and only allowed one player to reach double figures — Grady Koenig scored 11 points — in the win. Bozeman forced 14 turnovers and was credited with nine steals in the win.
“Early on in the year, when we were a little more close to full strength, we were really clicking defensively. As the year wore on we kind of struggled a little bit and we weren’t quite as good. We were letting our missed shots dictate how we were playing. That’s one thing I keep preaching to these guys, ‘If you miss a shot, you still have to play defense. You can always control how well you play on D,’” said Holmquist. “That’s what we’ve been trying to hang our hat on from the get-go and we went through that stretch in February where we lost our mojo defensively, we’ve been trying to get that back and I thought we played pretty good defensively last week until we ran out of gas. Tonight you saw that when we’re active, getting our hands up and getting deflections, we can do some pretty nice stuff.”
Bozeman will play in Friday night’s 8 p.m. semifinal game against the winner between Missoula Sentinel and Billings Senior.
Billings Senior 61, Missoula Sentinel 59
For a game that was exciting from start to finish, fans were certainly on their feet the most in the final three minutes.
Billings Senior and Missoula Sentinel went shot-for-shot for the majority of Thursday’s final game of the opening round at the State AA tournament, but the Broncs got the one stop they needed down the stretch to hang on to a 61-59 victory. Senior’s win gave the Eastern AA a clean sweep in the opening round of the tournament.
“Feels awesome. I’m so happy for the kids. It was a big win for us,” said Senior head coach Drew Haws. “It’s a new season and that’s how we looked at it. We were the four seed, they were the one, but it really doesn’t matter once you get to this stage of the season and our kids proved that tonight.”
Senior held a 57-49 lead after a 3 from Ben LaBeau and bucket inside from Brooks Zimmer, but Sam Beighle drilled a 3-pointer on the other end to cut the lead to 57-52 with 2:06 to play in the game. The next trip down the floor, Gaige DeShazer connected from downtown and Sentinel was within 57-55 with under 2:00 remaining.
Sentinel fouled Connor Kieckbusch, who converted each attempt, giving the Broncs a 59-55 advantage, but Beighle added to his game-high 32 points with a nifty jump shot that saw him spin in midair and connect from the right block, bringing the Spartans back within two points, 59-57 with 38 seconds to go. Sentinel again fouled, but Haws missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, giving Sentinel a chance to tie or take the lead.
Beighle, who was named Gatorade player of the year earlier Thursday, created just enough space to attempt a go-ahead 3-pointer, but the shot bounced off the rim and fell to the Broncs. Haws was sent back to the free throw line and made each attempt, putting the game away for good.
“It’s huge. You just think every shot that Beighle shoots over there is going in,” said Drew Haws. “I’ve talked to a lot of coaches and they tell you that, but then you see it in person. We just needed one miss from him and we got it and luckily we were good enough to get the rebound and knock down a couple free throws.”
Braxton Haws and Kieckbusch scored 19 points each for Senior, which took a 19-14 lead after the first quarter. But Beighle wasn’t going to let the Spartans go down without a fight. The future Carroll College Fighting Saint scored 15 first-half points and led a Spartans’ charge in the second quarter, outscoring the Broncs 20-12 in the frame, to hold a 34-31 edge at the half. Sentinel held an eight-point lead in the second quarter, but Senior shot a blistering 68 percent in the first 16 minutes.
The back-and-forth affair continued into the second half, with Haws, Kieckbusch and Beighle knocking down big shot after big shot, but Brooks Zimmer helped provide a spark for the Broncs. He scored eight of his 10 points in the final two periods, and added seven rebounds in the win. LaBeau was also key in the Broncs’ victory, chipping in with five points and three steals, while pressuring Beighle on the defensive end.
“We thought we had an advantage there (with Zimmer),” said Haws. “We know Braxton and Connor can shoot the ball, but we thought we really had an advantage with Brooks, with his size and his skill and ability. We got him the ball a couple of times and it really paid off for us.
“Ben has been our unsung hero all season long. He doesn’t get a lot of publicity or the stats, but he guards the best player on the other team night in and night out. In the divisional tournament he hit two huge 3s that really propelled us to get here, and then tonight, you saw what he did tonight. I can’t say enough about that kid. Unbelievable.”
Final statistics were balanced between the two programs, but Senior shot lights out in the win, connecting on 66 percent of its shots on the evening. The Broncs made 23 of 35 field goals, including a 7-13 performance from beyond the 3-point line. Senior also made the most of its free throw chances, hitting eight of 12 from the charity stripe.
“That’s unbelievable. And for it to be that close, that says what a good team Sentinel is and how well they played,” Haws said.
Senior was the fourth and final Eastern AA team to win in the opening round, joining Great Falls High, Great Falls CMR and Bozeman in the semifinals. The Broncs meet the Hawks in Friday’s 8 p.m. contest, setting up a conference rematch between foes.
“Bozeman is a great team. Their whole team is good, so it’s going to be a challenge for us, but I think our guys will be up for the challenge,” said Haws.
Missoula Sentinel falls to the loser-out bracket and faces Helena High on Friday at 1:30 p.m.