BUTTE — It was three years in the making.
When the score clock at Butte’s Maroon Activity Center hit zero, Jeff Bellach let out a sigh, smiled and looked around at the packed crowd, his Manhattan Christian Eagles having just clinched the Western C divisional boys basketball championship 63-51 over rival Arlee.
“These kids have been focused on this game all year. We haven’t talked about it a lot, but that’s where their focus has been,” said Bellach, whose Eagles have lost to Arlee in each of the past two State C championship games. “We knew there were some teams in our way and we had to take care of that business, but we’ve been driven to do it.”
Despite the 12-point final advantage, it was anything but easy for Bellach’s Eagles.
Manhattan Christian opened the game on a 16-4 run, letting out three years of frustration in the first five minutes, as Josiah Amunrud hit three 3-pointers and Caleb Bellach, Jeff’s son, knocked down two of his own.
“We had confidence coming in, I think a lot better than we did in the past years, the team we were and the team we were playing,” said Caleb, who finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and four steals. “That’s a good basketball team and they played a great game, so did we, I thought. We came out and did what we needed to do, and to have it all come to an end like that is pretty awesome.”
Arlee struggled to find rhythm in the first half, frustrated by Manhattan Christian’s pressure and success on the offensive end. The Warriors made only six field goals in the first 16 minutes, trailing 36-22 at halftime.
“That’s basketball. It just depends on what time you have the ball and what run you’re going to be in,” said Arlee head coach Zanen Pitts. “Manhattan Christian, hats off to them, they played a great game. They came out, they executed, they had half the turnovers of us, shot the ball better than us and we still had a great game.”
Particularly in the third quarter. Greg Whitesell sparked an 8-0 run by himself, part of a 10-0 spurt by the Warriors, to draw within 38-32 with 4:28 remaining in the quarter.
But as quick as Arlee’s run came, Manhattan Christian answered with one of its own, with guard Sam Leep scoring six points in two minutes to help the Eagles extend the lead to 45-32.
“The lane was just open. It was easy to get in there and look to either score or dish,” said Leep, who finished with 19 points, six each in the third and fourth quarters. “I was just trying to get easy buckets for the team.”
But just as Leep and the Eagles seemed to be in control, the two-time defending state champions crashed the party.
Lane Johnson hit a 3 to slice the lead to eight, 48-40, three of his team-high 15 points, then brothers Billy and Isaac Fisher scored five consecutive points for the Warriors to get within 51-46. Cody Tanner’s 3-pointer with 3:08 to play cut the lead to 55-51, forcing a timeout from Bellach.
“We played pretty dang good there in that second half. Those boys balled out, they really came at it,” said Pitts. “These boys play off of emotion, they definitely play when the crowd is behind them. The crowd brought their energy back, gave them a little heart and you saw that.”
After 30 minutes of top-notch basketball, each team struggled in the final two minutes, a stretch filled with turnovers and fouls, including Arlee’s Tanner and Johnson fouling out, Johnson receiving a technical on his way off the court.
That led to four consecutive free throws from Amunrud to clinch the win.
“That was pretty much the dagger. We had decided he was going to the line, and it was kind of a coach’s decision. I’ve done that before — if they make both, you leave them up there and they make a couple more,” Bellach said. “It was ice, he wanted it. He came out with a lot of fire (Saturday) and he really got us off to a good start with some of the plays he made. All of the guys, it was a great team win.”
Saturday night marked the sixth consecutive season the Eagles and Warriors met in the Western C divisional bracket, with Arlee winning three of the first five en route to three straight divisional championships.
But this night belonged to Manhattan Christian, Jeff Bellach, his son Caleb and the rest of the Eagles, who will face Fairview in the opening round of the State C tournament March 7 in Billings.
“We’re excited. We have an extra week off to get better because we didn’t play our perfect game yet,” said Caleb. “We have to play our best game the next game, and that’s what we’re looking to do the first round at state. Next week is going to help us get better.”
Arlee’s return to the state tournament has one more stop — a challenge game Monday night against Twin Bridges, which defeated Gardiner in Saturday’s consolation. Pitts and the Warriors will have a quick turnaround, but seek a fourth consecutive berth in the final weekend.
“I guess you’ll find out Monday,” Pitts smiled when asked how to slow Twin Bridges. “We’ll see. Yeah, they’re athletic, they’re long. They have a good coach, so I guess we’ll go to the drawing board and get ready.”
Twin Bridges 64, Gardiner 53, consolation
Twin Bridges outscored Gardiner 26-7 in the third quarter en route to a 64-53 win in the Western C consolation game Saturday.
Charlie Kruer had 17 points, Daniel Kruer added 13 points and six rebounds, while Nate Konen had a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Falcons, which showcased their length on defense and efficiency on offense. Twin Bridges led 59-32 early in the fourth quarter before the Bruins chipped away at the lead in the final minutes.
Twin Bridges shot a sizzling 50 percent for the game, including a 10-of-21 performance from the 3-point line. Point guard Bryce Nye dished out eight assists in the win.
“It was awesome. Our coach (Josh Keller) made a couple of adjustments that definitely helped us out and we were ready,” said Nye, who finished with 10 points, eight assists, two rebounds and a steal. “We wanted it way more than Gardiner did, I think, and that’s what helped carry us through the third quarter.”
Gardiner hung around in the first half, trailing 31-25 at the break, before the Falcons’ offensive explosion in the third. Still, Clancy Thomas and Sean Rehmer brought the Bruins to within striking distance in the final eight minutes, but the third-period damage was too much to overcome.
Thomas finished with a game-high 21 points, Rehmer added 13 and Jacob Perius grabbed nine rebounds for the Bruins.