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What I’ll be watching: Regular-season conference title races heating up

Posted at 5:48 PM, Jan 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-17 19:48:27-05
Box Elder’s Joelnell Momberg watches her shot during the Northern C divisional tournament in 2018. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)

As we move past the halfway point of the high school basketball season, the regular-season conference title races are heating up.

For some teams, this weekend marks the second time around the conference schedule. Unbeaten Big Timber gets a rematch of its stiffest test of the year, as do the unbeaten Wolf Point girls. Browning’s girls and Deer Lodge’s boys have shots to jump to the top of their respective conference standings. And in Helena, the top two Class AA girls teams go toe-to-toe on Friday evening.

Class AA

Boys

  • Bozeman and Great Falls High meet on Saturday in Great Falls in a matchup of the Eastern AA’s top two teams. Bozeman will need to slow down the explosive tandem of Bison seniors Blake Thelen and Kyle Torgerson. Thelen and Torgerson were the catalysts of a late comeback at Great Falls CMR last week. Bozeman and Great Falls High stand as the only two teams in the Eastern AA without conference losses and are ranked Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in the latest Class AA coaches poll.
  • Missoula Hellgate doesn’t have to travel far on Saturday, as the Knights take on crosstown rival Missoula Sentinel. Both Sentinel and Hellgate are unbeaten in Western AA play so far. This will be the toughest test to date for the young Spartans. Hellgate, however, will look to put a stranglehold on the rest of the Western AA with a win.

Girls

  • Another crosstown battle is set to take place this weekend, and it features the top two teams in the Western AA. Helena Capital will face two-time defending champion Helena High on Friday night. Both Capital and Helena High have been dominant so far this season on their way to perfect 8-0 records. Helena Capital is possibly the only team capable of matching Helena High’s size, but the Bartsch sisters will need to find a way to slow down future Montana Grizzly Jamie Pickens to take down the top-ranked Bengals.
  • The other unbeaten in Class AA is Billings West, which has rolled through its competition to this point in the season. The No. 2 Golden Bears will travel to Butte on Saturday to face the No. 4 Bulldogs. Butte could vault itself to the top of the Eastern AA with a win, while West would grab complete control of the conference with a road victory.

Class A

Boys

  • Lewistown didn’t lose much from last year’s team that made the State A tournament, but the Golden Eagles have been inconsistent this year. The Eagles could turn the corner this weekend with a win at Billings Central. The Rams, though, have been playing their best basketball as of late and are looking to cement themselves as the team to beat in the Eastern A.
  • The last time Butte Central and Frenchtown met, the Maroons held Frenchtown to just 45 points. But that’s been the common theme for Butte Central this season, as it’s given up 50-plus points just twice. Frenchtown has a chance to snap Butte Central’s 10-game win streak and pull within one game in the conference standings. If Butte Central wins, the Southwestern A is almost certain to be a two-team race between the Maroons and Hamilton.

Girls

  • Browning was a bit of a surprise early in the season, but the Indians have proven they are a contender in Class A. They’ll host unbeaten Columbia Falls on Thursday evening with the Northwestern A’s top spot on the line. Thursday’s winner will have the inside track to the top seed at the district tournament, but the two teams will also meet in the final regular-season game in Columbia Falls.
  • Belgrade has found ways to win over the past few weeks and is just a game back of Havre in the Central A. The Panthers can take over the conference’s top spot with a win at the Blue Ponies on Saturday, but Havre hasn’t lost in nearly two years. Havre won by 15 in Belgrade in December and another victory would give the Blue Ponies a commanding lead in the conference standings.

Class B

Boys

  • Since a two-point mid-December win over Three Forks, Big Timber has won every game by more than 15 points. The unbeaten Sheepherders will have a rematch with the defending Southern B champion Wolves on Thursday night in Three Forks. Big Timber has rolled through the rest of its conference schedule, so another win over Three Forks would almost certainly lock down the District 5B regular-season title. However, Three Forks can jump into a tie atop the standings with Big Timber with a win.
  • Missoula Loyola has been very impressive in the first half of the season and leads District 6B. However, Deer Lodge is hot on the heels of the Rams. The Wardens recently handed defending champion Bigfork its first loss of the year and can jump back into the regular-season conference title race by taking down Loyola at home on Friday night. In the mid-December meeting between the two, Loyola beat Deer Lodge, 68-57.

Girls

  • Unbeaten Wolf Point will begin to run back through its conference schedule this week, and that starts with a rematch against Harlem. The Wolves squeaked past Harlem in December, winning a thriller by two. Wolf Point was expected to be among Class B’s best in the preseason and has delivered with a 10-0 record, but Harlem can throw its name in the ring of legitimate Class B contenders with a road win on Saturday.
  • Forsyth and St. Labre have both been surprises in District 3B so far and sit Nos. 1 and 2 in the conference, respectively. In the first meeting between these two, Forsyth won a low-scoring affair at home. The Dogies and Braves meet at St. Labre on Friday evening with the district’s top spot on the line. With 2018 runner-up Colstrip also in the conference, the top seed at the district tournament becomes even more important.

Class C

Boys

  • Ennis and Twin Bridges renew their rivalry on Thursday night in Twin. Ennis’ Trevor Swanson is coming off a scintillating 44-point performance against Drummond, but Twin has absolutely shut down its opponents this season. The Falcons have allowed more than 50 points just once. Twin Bridges has been one of the best teams in the Western C and can move one step closer to a regular-season conference title with a win over the rival Mustangs.
  • Chinook and Hays-Lodgepole will meet for the final time in the regular season on Friday night when the Thunderbirds host the Sugarbeeters. In their December matchup, Chinook slowed down Hays-Lodgepole’s potent offense and held it to just 44 points. Chinook is still unbeaten and sits atop District 9C, but Hays-Lodgepole is within striking distance. A win for the Thunderbirds would put them just one game back of Chinook entering the season’s final weeks.

Girls

  • 2018 runner-up Winnett-Grass Range went through some hiccups early in the season, losing to Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap and Belt, but the Rams have hit their stride in recent weeks. They’ll have a shot at redemption against Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap on Thursday night as the Rams host the Titans. Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap, though, is playing its best basketball of late in a stretch that includes wins over Roy-Winifred and previously unbeaten Belt.
  • District 2C was extremely competitive last season and sent two teams to the State C tournament. Again, the conference is shaping up to be among Class C’s best. Two of its top teams go head-to-head Friday night as Plentywood takes on Westby-Grenora. Plentywood and Westby-Grenora are both unbeaten in conference play so far, although the two met in December in a non-conference tilt. Plentywood won that game by eight in overtime.