BILLINGS — Sam Vining and Garrison Rothwell stood in nearly the exact spot Josh Huestis stood eight years ago. Vining and Rothwell, the Great Falls CMR standouts, hoisted the program’s first State AA basketball trophy since Huestis and the Rustlers won in 2010 as CMR defeated Bozeman 81-69 Saturday night at Rimrock Auto Arena.
“Oh my gosh, that’s insane. Those guys are legends and we had to do what they did here. … It’s an amazing feeling to do this with people that have been there over the years with you,” said Vining, “the people that have been there since Day 1, all coming together and celebrating this, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
CMR continued its red-hot shooting performance from Friday night, when it blitzed crosstown rival Great Falls High 62-38 in the semifinals. The Rustlers shot 54 percent on Saturday evening, knocking down 10 3-pointers in the win over the Hawks. Vining scored a game-high 25 points on 8-12 shooting, while grabbing six rebounds and dishing two assists. Rothwell added 17 points to go with eight assists and five rebounds. He also had three steals for CMR’s daunting defense.
“We shot well the last two games, we have some kids that can flat out knock it down — Vining, Rothwell, Jake Olsen, (Bryce) Depping is an underrated shooter — so we have a lot of kids that can put the ball in the hole, make plays, and we were able to make plays down the stretch, make free throws and get a win.”
The Eastern AA rivals opened the game in a blaze, with each team lighting up the scoreboard. Rothwell hit a pair of 3s, and Russell Gagne knocked down a jumper to land the Rustlers at 18 points, while Ryan Simpson dropped a triple of his own to help Bozeman to 17. But the second quarter, CMR’s Metra magic continued.
“We were not phased by the lights or the big crowd or anything, we just came out ready to play,” said Vining.
Bryce Depping scored four quick points and Vining buried a deep 3-pointer as part of a 7-1 run for CMR that brought the score to 25-17. Bozeman’s Ryan Lonergan added four quick points of his own, but Vining answered with a triple and pair of free throws to put the Rustlers back up 10.
After Lonergan successfully converted a 3-point play, Jake Olsen splashed a 3-pointer in the corner that brought the Rustler fans to their feet. Caleb Currington’s field goal near the end of the half sent the Rustlers to the locker room with momentum, up 41-30.
“When you have seniors like we do, they’ll be able to weather a storm. When we were playing young kids two or three years ago, that would have been tough on us,” Cislo said of Bozeman’s scoring spurts. “Right now, we’re state champs, but if you would have told me we would give up 69 points and win, I would have told you you’re nuts.”
Still, Wes Holmquist’s halftime message to the Hawks appeared simple — attack the basket and draw fouls to chip away at the lead. Bozeman did just that, with Anderson, Lonergan and Robbie Simpson sparking a 7-2 run to get the Hawks within 43-37 with 5:57 to play in the third. Lonergan snagged a loose ball and dropped it in the hoop to cut the lead to five moments later, but the shooting performance went back on display.
Vining dropped two more 3s, two of his game-high five, then added two free throws in an 11-2 CMR run that saw CMR take its largest lead of the game at 59-45. Carter Ash knocked in a layup as time expired to get Bozeman within 10 entering the final quarter.
But CMR’s eight seniors, which suffered a state tournament drought and three rough seasons, weren’t prepared to let the game slip through their hands.
“Every day I thought (that we could win a state title). I came in with that mindset, every one of my teammates did and that’s why we ended up winning it,” Vining said.
“We have eight seniors, and yeah, we don’t have a lot of (state tournament) experience, but we have kids that know how to play together. They’ve been playing together since they were in fourth or fifth grade and we were confident coming into the season that we could definitely get to the state tournament. As the season progressed I thought, ‘Yep, we’re not bad.’ Then we end up winning a title, which is nice.”
Robbie Simpson and Anderson did their best to bring Bozeman within striking distance in the fourth quarter, adding putbacks in the early minutes, Anderson’s one of his signature two-handed dunks, but Vining and Rothwell took over in crunch time, scoring eight points down the stretch to hold off the Hawks. Vining hesitated on his final 3-pointer before swishing the ball through, giving the Rustlers a 79-67 lead with 2:27 to go.
“They had an error on defense, they left a guy open, and I was thinking about not shooting it considering the clock and score, but I just decided to put the dagger in them,” Vining said. “I’m glad I shot it.”
Bozeman star Mack Anderson provided another great performance, scoring 20 points and hauling in 12 rebounds. The future Montana Grizzly went 6-9 from the floor and made eight of 12 free throws in the loss. Robbie Simpson added 16 points, while Lonergan chipped in with 15.
Saturday’s win gave CMR its eighth boys basketball championship in program history. The Rustlers previously won in 1977, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2010. Cislo was an assistant coach for Mike McLean in the three-peat between 2000-2002, and head coach when the Rustlers won consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010.
“They’re all great. I can remember being an assistant for McLean in 2000 when our school went 20-something years without a title, so (winning) felt pretty good,” Cislo said. “They all feel really good, but I think this one is a little more special because, one, we haven’t been to the state tournament in three or four years, and these kids worked their tails off, had a lot of adversity, stepped up and they’re state champs.”