BILLINGS — It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Not this game, not a rivalry.
Great Falls CMR scored 41 first-half points en route to a 62-38 victory over crosstown rival Great Falls High Friday night in the State AA semifinals, earning the program’s first berth in the state championship game since 2010.
Garrison Rothwell outscored the Bison by himself in the first half, pouring in 17 points on 7-8 shooting, including a 2-2 mark from beyond the 3-point line. Rothwell finished with 19 points, six rebounds and two steals in the win.
“I think we just looked at yesterday where we started out a little slow,” said Rothwell. “We knew if we started out slow it’s really hard to grind back, especially in a big game like that, a rivalry, so we came out firing and gave it all we had.”
The Rustlers, the Eastern AA regular season and divisional tournament champion, opened the game on a quick 6-0 run after a 3-pointer from Sam Vining and a Rothwell bsaket and the foul. Rothwell’s 3 minutes later had the Bison down 10 and they were never within single digits again.
“I did not play well (Thursday) against Glacier. I fouled out and had a lot of fouls,” said Rothwell. “I just knew if I gave it my all it would change how the game went.”
“I was proud of him,” CMR coach John Cislo said of Rothwell. “Obviously, last night he was down on himself because he didn’t get to play a whole lot because of the foul trouble. You always worry about kids. Yeah, he looks like a man out there as big and strong as he is, but he’s only 17, 18 years old and I was really happy with the way he responded tonight.”
CMR shot an astounding 73 percent in the first half, knockin down 16 of 22 field goals, including a 5-7 performance from downtown. The Rustlers slowed down in the second half, but still finished shooting 67 percent for the game. Great Falls High shot 20 percent in the first half and 23 percent overall.
Great Falls High got within 58-38 with 2:08 remaining, forcing Cislo to take a timeout to refocus the Rustlers. A turnover on the ensuing inbounds led to Cislo briefly re-inserting his starting lineup, including Rothwell and Vining, to finish the game on a strong note.
“The momentum going into (Saturday) is huge, but we also needed to take care of the ball a little better than that,” said Cislo. “We were turning it over too often, and I get it, in the first half we were intense, the second half you get up 30 points and you could see a letdown out of our kids. Even our starters went in there and were turning it over a little bit also. I know they’re probably tired of me harping on them to play defense, but like I tell them, we don’t want to give up anything easy.”
Saturday night will mark the first state championship appearance for the Rustlers since 2010, when Josh Huestis led CMR to a 71-41 victory over Billings West on the same Rimrock Auto Arena court.
“It’s huge for us,” said Rothwell. “We came in as the No. 1 seed after winning divisionals, which was exciting, and then winning both games and going to the chipper in our first time seeing state, it’s exciting for us.”
“When we go through our walk-through tomorrow, we’ll talk about how we want to defend (in the championship game),” said Cislo. “For them it’s huge. You look at all our seniors, we have eight seniors, and when they go in the game they don’t pout a whole lot. They go in there, do their job. (Kaden) Walsh comes in, I think he only had two minutes in the (early second) half and he got a couple layups. They’re kids that care about each other, if I could share their grades with you — they’re great students in the classroom — on the court they understand what we want to be able to do.”
CMR will meet the winner of Bozeman and Billings Senior in Saturday’s championship. The Rustlers swept Bozeman in three meetings this season, including last weekend’s divisional championship. CMR split its meetings with Billings Senior.
Great Falls High falls to loser-out action on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The Bison meet Missoula Sentinel.
Bozeman 66, Billings Senior 62
Wes Holmquist had never seen a putback dunk win a high school basketball game. That changed Friday evening.
Holmquist’s Bozeman Hawks defeated Billings Senior 66-62 after Mack Anderson’s offensive rebound and putback dunk put the Hawks ahead 63-62 with 10 seconds to play in regulation. The dunk turned out to be the eventual game winner.
“You can’t think of a much bigger play than that follow-up,” Holmquist said. “We actually executed what we wanted to pretty well, we got a good look in there and Mack followed it up and that was pretty fun. That was a pretty exciting moment.
“No, I have not, especially in high school,” he continued of the eventual game-winning dunk. “He’s grown so much offensively this year. He’s special at 6-foot-9, he can run the floor and is athletic like that. What I’ve really liked and seen of him down the stretch here, he wants the ball now. That’s a big deal. Even earlier this year, it wasn’t that he didn’t want it, but he wasn’t demanding the ball. He and (Ryan) Lonergan are each doing a great job of demanding the ball.”
Fans in Rimrock Auto Arena were entertained for nearly 31 minutes as the Hawks and Broncs traded blows, but it was the final 74 seconds that provided the most thrills. Bozeman saw a five-point lead trimmed to one in the fourth quarter, before Senior’s Connor Kieckbusch flashed backdoor on the right baseline, catching a pass from teammate Brooks Zimmer and softly laying the ball through the hoop.
Senior’s 60-59 lead was short-lived, however, as Anderson scored 20 seconds later to put Bozeman back in front by a point at 61-60 with 53 seconds to play. Senior wasted little time jumping back in front, with Zimmer driving past Anderson for a layup on the right block, giving the Broncs a 62-61 advantage with under 30 seconds remaining.
But Anderson wasn’t prepared to watch his Hawks falter in the final minutes, though. Ryan Lonergan drove to the right block for the go-ahead shot, but the ball bounced twice off the back of the rim, then hit the front iron and bounced in front of the basket, setting up Anderson’s flush. The dunk was his second of the game, with each being set up by an offensive rebound.
“We were all a little bit frustrated at that point, I feel like we were getting a little flustered,” said Anderson. “Personally, I was frustrated having four fouls and not getting to play at the start of the fourth quarter, so I was like, ‘This is it.’ I knew Ryan was getting hounded down there with two or three guys every time he touched it, so I just went up for it and came down (with the dunk).”
Still, Senior had a chance to retake the lead in the final 10 seconds, but Connor Kieckbusch was called for a charge with around six seconds to play, leading to Robbie Simpson hitting one of two free throws to put the Hawks ahead 64-62 with 2.8 remaining. Senior coach Drew Haws called a timeout, looking to draw up a potential game-winning full-court play, but Bozeman stole the inbounds pass and Simpson hit two more free throws to bring the score to 66-62.
Friday night was the latest in a long line of great games between the Eastern AA rivals. Bozeman swept Senior during the regular season, beating the Broncs 62-56 in early January, then routed them 71-56 later in the month. Despite the budding rivalry, the two teams remain good friends off the court.
“We’re all close, good friends. We always joke around, I dunked on (Slade Cobb) in Bozeman, but he denies it,” Anderson said of his summer AAU teammate. “It was all in good spirits, we laughed.”
The back-and-forth affair certainly started in Bozeman’s favor, with the Hawks jumping to a 19-10 lead in the opening quarter. But Braxton Haws and Kieckbusch each drilled 3s in the second quarter, Haws’ third of the first half, to get the score within 20-16. But it was an unlikely hero that brought the Broncs back for good.
Sam Evenson scored eight points in the first half, including a key basket during a Senior run, tying the game briefly at 28-all, and bringing the Broncs back to within 30-28 at halftime. Evenson had two assists, one rebound and one block in the first 16 minutes.
The teams continued trading baskets in the third quarter, until Anderson converted an and-one situation, snagging an offensive rebound and scoring the basket and making the free throw, giving the Hawks a 44-39 lead. Anderson added to the momentum with a block against Slade Cobb, but picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench with Bozeman up by three.
The supporting cast held in Anderson’s absence, and held a 56-51 lead when he returned with 5:00 remaining in the game. Still, Senior rallied again, with Zimmer and Ben LaBeau scoring five straight points to make it 59-58 Bozeman with 2:37 to play, but the final minutes benefited the Hawks.
“It’s awesome, especially against them. Kieckbusch is such a good player,” said Anderson. “We’re all good friends and I played AAU with him and Slade, so it’s fun playing them anyway, but in a game that big it’s just awesome.”
“The stress level was very high, the blood pressure was obviously very high,” Holmquist added of the final minute. “It’s fun. That’s so fun to go through those things. I’ve been in a lot of semifinal games and I swear that everyone of them has been just like that. They’re grueling. They’re fun, they’re grueling, but to see the kids pull through and make those plays down the stretch, all those hours we put in year-round, that made it worth it right there.”
Bozeman advances to the State AA championship for the third straight year. The Hawks fell 72-56 against Billings Skyview two years ago, before falling 46-42 against Kalispell Glacier last March in Great Falls.
The Hawks meet Great Falls CMR in Saturday’s championship, hoping to avenge three losses against the Rustlers this season, including last weekend’s Eastern AA divisional championship game.
“I’m sure they do (want to),” Holmquist laughed at the thought of CMR defeating Bozeman for a fourth time. “(John) Cislo and I are, he’s one of my best friends. We coached together for a long time. We were talking (Thursday) night and I said, ‘It’s hard to beat a team three times, what about four times?’ Both of us were like, ‘I don’t think we’ve even tried to beat a team four times in a year. We’ve never played anybody four times in a year.’”
“Boy, did they look good tonight,” he continued of the Rustlers. “We’re going to have to come up with a game plan to try and stop those guys. They’re so physical, just a great program, great team and we’re going to go out there and give it our best.”
Billings Senior falls to the loser-out bracket and faces Missoula Hellgate at 10:30 a.m.