Conference play has commenced across high school basketball floors in Montana. The games before Christmas provide an opportunity for teams to jump out to a fast start and gain confidence before ramping up play in January.
It’s also the time of year where teams begin to garner attention as contenders in their respective classifications. This week, the Butte Central and Plentywood boys continued to play well, while the Missoula Loyola and Melstone girls picked up impressive victories.
- Great Falls High picked up an impressive early-season win over Missoula Sentinel over the weekend, holding off the Spartans to win by five. This was a rematch of last year’s Saturday morning loser-out game at the State AA tournament, which the Bison won by three. The Bison return a talented, experienced group from last year and have a win early on to prove themselves as contenders again.
- Pegged as two of the favorites in Class AA, Missoula Hellgate and Bozeman met in a non-conference clash on Friday. The Knights, led by University of Montana commit Rollie Worster, dropped the Hawks in Bozeman, 67-61. The two teams will not meet again this season unless it as the state tournament. For Hellgate, this is the best win of the season to date in Class AA.
- Two-time defending Class AA champion Helena High continued its dominance over the weekend, as the Bengals won a pair of games in Billings. Facing the Billings schools in the regular season for the first time in several years, Helena High made quick work of both Billings Skyview and Billings Senior, outscoring the two 140-76.
- Missoula Sentinel has played in the Class AA title game six of the past eight seasons, but the Spartans have struggled the past couple games. They lost to Billings West by double digits earlier this season and barely scraped by Great Falls High on Friday. If Sentinel’s past success is any indication, the Spartans will figure things out as the season goes on.
- Last March at the Class A state tournament, Frenchtown ended Butte Central’s season. The Maroons got a piece of revenge last Friday, beating the Broncs in Frenchtown by 10. With wins over Frenchtown and Browning, Butte Central has put together an impressive early-season resume.
- Both Billings Central and Lewistown placed in the top four of Class A last season and returned strong cores this year. Central, however, got the better of the Eagles in Lewistown on Friday, beating the Eagles by 16. For Lewistown, the next step in the Eastern A is overcoming Central and Hardin. The Rams, however, have their sights set on a state title after three consecutive runner-up finishes.
- Defending champion Havre continues to flex its muscles. The Blue Ponies went on the road and beat Belgrade by 15 over the weekend, solidifying their status as Class A’s top dog. Havre has beaten Billings Central, too, and owns a pair of the best wins in Class A this season.
- After a third-place finish at last year’s State A tournament, Columbia Falls appears to be on a mission. The Wildkats swept the Class AA Kalispell schools over the weekend, beating both Flathead and Glacier. Columbia Falls has also beaten Butte Central, last year’s Western A champion.
- Fairfield added another strong win to its early-season resume, winning at Rocky Boy by double digits. Rocky Boy beat Fairfield in last year’s Northern B challenge game to make the state tournament and send the Eagles home. After a tough loss to Big Timber at the Imerys Classic, Fairfield owns wins over Three Forks and Rocky Boy, two of the best wins to date in Class B.
- Rocky Boy’s tough weekend continued, as Shelby, too, upended the Northern Stars, winning by two. The Coyotes lost a load of experience from last year’s Northern B championship team, but Shelby looks to have reloaded for another run at a State B title.
- Expectations were high entering the season for Wolf Point, as the Wolves added talented transfer Imani Bighorn to an already skilled lineup that includes her sister Mary. The Wolves had to scratch and claw for a victory over Harlem this past weekend, winning by just two points. This could, however, be a case of Harlem being a challenger to the top teams in Class B.
- Missoula Loyola’s girls picked up a pair of impressive wins over the weekend. On Friday, Loyola won at Deer Lodge by 16. The Breakers followed that with a win over Class A Hamilton, which placed fourth at last year’s State A tournament. So far, Loyola’s only loss is to Florence, which is thought to be among Class B’s best this season.
- In one of the most surprising scores of the weekend, Plentywood throttled Westby-Grenora, 73-48. The Thunder have been among the best teams in the Eastern C for the past few seasons, but the Wildcats sense a changing of the guard. Plentywood will get plenty of tests in a deep and competitive Eastern division.
- Hays-Lodgepole gave Chinook a run, but the Sugarbeeters held off the Thunderbirds to win by 12. Chinook is expected to have one of the best team’s in Class C after bringing back a ton of experience from a team that narrowly missed the state tournament last year. Hays-Lodgepole appears on track to return to its state tournament form of 2017, but the Thunderbirds will have plenty of challengers in the Northern C.
- Winnett-Grass Range kept Belt from the State C tournament last year when it won the Northern C divisional championship, not allowing the Huskies a challenge game. Belt got a little redemption over the weekend, as it blew out Winnett-Grass Range by 30. The Rams are facing an adjustment this season, as they have a new head coach and several new faces.
- Melstone freshman Draya Wacker has dazzled to open the season. Wacker scored 25 points against Class B Townsend, as the Broncs nearly took down the Bulldogs on Dec. 7. She followed that by outscoring Manhattan Christian by herself, pouring in 28 points to the Eagles’ 27. Following a Friday loss to Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap, Wacker helped lead Melstone past Ekalaka, last year’s Southern C champion, on Saturday. Wacker had 34 points and buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime, where the Broncs wound up winning by three.