The calendar has flipped to 2019, and high school basketball teams are entering the meat of the season. After nearly two weeks without hoops, teams return this weekend with several high-profile games. There’s a rematch of last year’s State AA girls title game in Helena, while Billings will see a rematch of last year’s State A boys title game. And in one of the most competitive divisions in the state, the Northern C girls will see a pair of favorites emerge from the pack.
- A pair of teams with high expectations entering the homestretch of the season are the Bozeman and Billings West boys. The two Eastern AA titans will meet on Thursday evening in Billings. It’s the first of two meetings between the two, but Thursday’s winner will jump to the top of the Eastern AA and be among the contenders vying for the divisional title.
- Great Falls High finished third at last year’s state tournament and has seemingly carried the momentum forward to this season. The Bison went unbeaten in December and will look to continue their winning streak on Saturday night at Helena Capital. The Bruins lost a pair of overtime games in December but have not yet lost by double digits. Capital appears as if it can compete with anyone in Class AA, and it will have a chance to prove that against the Bison.
- Missoula Sentinel will face Helena High in Helena on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s State AA girls championship game, which the Bengals won by four. The Bengals have won every game this season by double digits, while the Spartans lost a pair of games in December. Helena High can again solidify itself among the favorites in the Western AA with a victory over Sentinel.
- Coming off last year’s third-place finish at the state tournament, the Bozeman girls have been somewhat inconsistent in the early going. They lost by double digits to both Helena schools and lost at home to Kalispell Glacier, but the Hawks also won at Missoula Hellgate and at home against Missoula Sentinel. Billings West, however, has been dominant so far, winning each game by more than 20 points. The Hawks and Bears will face off in Bozeman on Thursday evening in a battle for Eastern AA supremacy.
- In last year’s State A boys title game, Hardin rallied to beat Billings Central for its first state title since 1997. Both teams return the bulk of their rosters this season and have unbeaten records entering 2019. This is the first of two regular-season meetings between the rivals, and it offers an opportunity to see who will be the early favorite out of the Eastern A.
- Butte Central racked up an impressive resume in December, picking up wins over the other three teams that represented the Western A at the state tournament last year. The Maroons are now battling to stay atop the Southwestern A, as they host Dillon on Friday night. Dillon has lost just once this season, a three-point setback to Frenchtown, and has the top-end talent to test unbeaten Butte Central.
- Billings Central’s girls have strung together four consecutive victories after a season-opening four-point loss at defending Class A champion Havre. The Rams have another chance to prove themselves as a threat to the Blue Ponies’ throne when they host Hardin on Saturday night. Hardin was last season’s Class A runner-up and has lost to just Laurel in Class A so far. Along with the Locomotives, Saturday night’s winner will be atop the Eastern A.
- The Libby girls had tremendous success in December and the Loggers enter 2019 unbeaten. Libby travels to Browning on Saturday night to face the Indians, who have only lost to Class B Shelby this season. The winner of Saturday’s game will join Columbia Falls as the early-season favorites in the Northwestern A.
- The Shelby Coyotes have plenty of new faces this year after finishing runner-up at last year’s State B boys tournament. So far, they’ve been inconsistent. Shelby was blown out by Bigfork in the season opener and lost the following night by nine to Missoula Loyola. However, Shelby bounced back to beat Browning the weekend before Christmas. On Saturday, the Coyotes hit the road to face Fairfield. The Eagles were pegged among the preseason favorites in Class B and should be a stiff test for Shelby.
- Lodge Grass and Huntley Project will face off Friday night in a critical game in the Southern B. Lodge Grass has put up points in bunches this season, scoring more than 75 points in six consecutive games. Huntley Project struggled to begin the season but has since found its footing, winning the final two games before the holiday break. Both sides are looking to build momentum heading into the heart of conference play.
- District 5B features two of the top girls programs in the state in Three Forks and Townsend. The two rivals are separated by less than 40 miles of highway and will renew acquaintances on Saturday night. Three Forks, the reigning Class B girls state champions, will travel to Townsend, which finished third at last year’s state tournament. Townsend can avenge the three games it lost to Three Forks last season, while the Wolves will try to maintain their perch atop the district.
- Columbus was one of the biggest surprises in December, as the Cougars racked up an unbeaten record. Columbus can take another step toward District 4B dominance with a win at Roundup on Thursday evening, but the Panthers, too, will be looking to take over the top spot. Both teams have their sights set on the state tournament after missing out last year, and Thursday’s winner will be in the driver’s seat of the 4B.
- The Plentywood boys put together an unbeaten December and could be a dark horse in the highly-competitive Eastern C. The Wildcats will host Culbertson, which has lost just once, on Friday evening. With a win, both teams can take the next step in becoming a threat to the likes of Scobey and Fairview.
- Hays-Lodgepole went into the holiday break with losses to just Chinook and Poplar. The Thunderbirds look like they could be back to the state tournament form they showed in 2017. Hays-Lodgepole will need to win at Fort Benton on Saturday night for that to be a reality, but Fort Benton has not been a pushover this season, having gone unbeaten in the early portion of its schedule.
- The Box Elder girls are among the favorites for the Class C girls title after winning last year and returning loads of talent. The Bears will travel to Fort Benton on Friday night to face the Longhorns, who have yet to lose this season and own an impressive victory over Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap. After Friday night’s battle, District 9C will have a new leader in the clubhouse.
- Another battle between top teams in the Northern C takes place this weekend, as the Belt girls take on Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap. Belt has been utterly dominant this season, while the Titans have lost just once. Belt and Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap share a pair of common opponents to this point, Roy-Winifred and Winnett-Grass Range, which both the Huskies and Titans beat. Saturday night’s winner will be atop District 8C.