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What I’ll be watching: Rivalry games to shape postseason picture

Posted at 5:45 PM, Jan 31, 2019
(Nick Petraccione/MTN Sports)

Conference races are getting tight across the state, as high school basketball teams continue jockeying for postseason positioning.

February’s first weekend brings forth a handful of rivalry games with conference title implications. The Eastern A boys race could be over by Saturday night, while the girls race will finally see some slight separation. Forsyth’s girls can legitimize their status as championship contenders in Class B, and the rivalry games across Class C carry increased weight with the district tournaments looming.

Class AA

Boys

  • Billings West faces a brutal weekend schedule, as the Bears host No. 3 Great Falls CMR on Friday night and No. 2 Great Falls High on Saturday. Billings West struggled last weekend in losses to Bozeman and Laurel, but the Bears have a chance to jump as high as second in the Eastern AA with a pair of wins. But West plays two of Class AA’s hottest teams, as CMR has won four consecutive games and the Bison have won six in a row entering the weekend.
  • Second place in the Western AA is up for grabs on Thursday night when Kalispell Glacier hits the road to take on Missoula Sentinel. The young Spartans are getting their first look at Glacier, which sits just a game back of Sentinel but is in fourth place. A top-three seed is vital, as it would avoid a potential matchup with top-seeded Missoula Hellgate in the semifinals at the Western AA divisional tournament.

Girls

  • Kalispell Glacier and Missoula Hellgate meet on Saturday afternoon in a battle for third place in the Western AA. Glacier was blown out by Helena Capital, but the Wolfpack lost by just nine to top-ranked Helena High, showing that they can compete with the state’s top teams. Hellgate is young, but the Knights picked up their first win over Missoula Sentinel since 2003. Hellgate hopes to build on that win heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
  • The Billings Senior girls haven’t had the season they expected after Kola Bad Bear’s injury during volleyball, but the Broncs find themselves battling for the Eastern AA’s third seed. Bozeman, however, is looking to carry forward the momentum from Tuesday’s win over Butte that handed the Bulldogs their first conference loss. Bozeman travels to Billings to take on Senior on Saturday night.

Class A

Boys

  • The top two Class A teams in the MontanaSports.com power rankings meet on Saturday at Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings, as No. 1 Billings Central takes on No. 2 Hardin. These two rivals delivered a couple memorable games last season, including Hardin’s win in the state championship. Central, however, got the better of Hardin in the first meeting this season, winning by five. If the Rams can replicate that performance, they will likely lock up the Eastern A regular-season title. But Hardin can make things interesting with a victory on Saturday night.
  • Butte Central narrowly escaped Livingston at the beginning of January, coming away with a one-point win. The Maroons now host the Rangers, who have still yet to lose in Central A conference play. This could be the time to strike for Livingston, as the Maroons are coming off their first loss of the season. However, that loss could light a flame under Butte Central in the season’s final weeks. Although Livingston has battled inconsistency throughout the season, the Rangers have won their past four games.

Girls

  • The Hardin girls face a must-win this weekend if they want to keep hope alive for the Eastern A regular-season title, but the fifth-ranked Bulldogs will need to beat No. 4 Billings Central to do so. Hardin just handed Laurel its first conference loss of the season, bringing the Locomotives back to the pack in the conference and keeping the Bulldogs in the hunt. Central, however, can essentially make it a two-horse race with Laurel if it can beat Hardin for the second time this season.
  • Laurel suffered its first conference setback of the season last weekend, but the Locomotives will look to rebound at Belgrade on Saturday afternoon. Laurel has lost to just one Class A team this year. Belgrade, though, has had its ups and downs this season, but the Panthers are looking for a signature win as the year winds down. Although non-conference, there’s the possibility these two teams play at the Eastern A super-divisional tournament.

Class B

Boys

  • Fairfield’s overtime loss to Choteau last weekend was just what the Shelby boys were hoping for. The Coyotes now have the chance to take control of District 1B with a win at home over the Eagles on Thursday evening. In their early January matchup, Fairfield beat the Coyotes by nearly 20 points. With conference play coming to a close, Thursday night’s winner will likely be the regular-season conference champion.
  • A pair of Southern B teams do battle Friday night in a non-conference bout, as Huntley Project hits the road to face Lodge Grass. Huntley Project sits atop District 4B, but the Red Devils have failed to win a game outside of conference play. Lodge Grass won at Huntley Project at the beginning of the month and a sweep of the Red Devils would not bode well for District 4B’s success at the divisional tournament.

Girls

  • Top-ranked Townsend, Class B’s only remaining unbeaten team, and defending champion Three Forks renew their storied rivalry on Saturday night in Three Forks. The Townsend girls have ripped off 16 consecutive wins dating back to last season, but the Bulldogs only beat Three Forks by one in their first meeting. The Wolves have struggled with consistency this season and sit fourth in District 5B, but a win over the state’s No. 1 team could propel Three Forks to more postseason success.
  • The fifth-ranked Forsyth girls have suffered just one loss all season – a three-point loss at home to 2018 runner-up Colstrip. The Dogies have blown through the rest of their schedule and can essentially lock up the District 3B title with a win at home on Friday night over the Fillies. Colstrip, though, can cause a three-way logjam atop the standings with Forsyth and St. Labre if it’s able to top Forsyth.

Class C

Boys

  • District 2C is long from being decided, but Fairview can distance itself from the rest of the pack this weekend. The 12-2 Warriors host 12-2 Plentywood on Saturday in a battle of the district’s top two teams. Fairview waxed Plentywood on the road three weeks ago, handing the Wildcats a 21-point loss. Plentywood can jump to the top of the district with a win, but Fairview is looking to send a message to the rest of the conference that the Warriors are still the team to beat.
  • Fort Benton’s only loss this season came by two points on the road at No. 5 Chinook. The Longhorns have been quite impressive en route to piling up 13 wins, including dismantling Hays-Lodgepole by 36 at the beginning of January. Hays-Lodgepole gets a shot at revenge on Saturday when Fort Benton hits the road to face the Thunderbirds. If Hays-Lodgepole is able to beat Fort Benton, it would be alive for the No. 2 seed at the district tournament. Fort Benton can keep its regular-season conference title hopes alive with a win, as a home meeting with Chinook will close out the Longhorns’ regular season.

Girls

  • Since Belt’s Jan. 5 loss at Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap, the Huskies have beaten their six opponents by just over 36 points per game. Belt can avenge just its second loss in two seasons on Saturday night at home against the Titans. A win for Belt would likely lock up the District 8C regular-season title, but Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap can jump into the driver’s seat with a second victory over Belt. A Class C team hasn’t beaten the Belt girls twice in the same season since Rachel Semansky-led Highwood beat them four times during the 2008-09 season.
  • No. 3 Froid-Medicine Lake will look to make it a two-team race in District 2C on Thursday night, as the Redhawks host third-place Westby-Grenora. With unbeaten No. 2 Savage on the schedule at the end of the season for Froid-Medicine Lake, the Redhawks can’t look ahead or the Thunder could jump into the conference title race. Froid-Medicine Lake won by just three at Westby-Grenora back in the season opener on Dec. 1.