GREAT FALLS — Defense has been the calling card all season long for the Butte Central Maroons boys basketball team.
The Maroons put the clamps on Laurel in the first round of the State A boys basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena on Thursday, as Butte Central defeated the Locomotives, 35-24.
“When you put us and (Laurel head coach Pat Hansen’s) team together, that’s the game you’re going to get,” Butte Central head coach Brodie Kelly said. “Some people think it’s ugly. I appreciate it. I respect the effort. People don’t realize how hard it is to concentrate on the defensive end and to play with that kind of effort for that long. I thought both teams played really well defensively.”
The two teams grinded through the first half, making just 7 of 26 field goal attempts combined, as Butte Central entered the locker room with a 12-8 advantage. The Maroons, however, found their footing in the third quarter and gained some separation, carrying a nine-point lead into the final frame.
Laurel, though, would mount a run in the fourth quarter. The Locomotives scored the first seven points of the quarter to cut the deficit to 24-22 with six minutes left. Kelly’s squad remained calm in the closing minutes, locking down the Locomotives once again.
Butte Central finished the game on an 11-2 run, allowing Laurel to score only two points over the final six minutes of the game.
“We wanted to keep locking down and guarding the way we were defensively,” Kelly said. “On that offensive side, we were just trying to get better straight-line cuts to the rim. We were swinging the ball with handoffs, and I thought we were being a little soft. We made an adjustment and went to the block a little bit.”
Senior Cade Holter was instrumental in Butte Central’s defensive performance on Thursday. Holter chased Laurel’s leading scorer Gaje Leischner throughout the game, frequently forcing the ball out of Leischner’s hands.
“He did an awesome job, because Leischner can put up some points,” Kelly said of Holter’s defense. “(Holter) has been doing that against a lot of great players this year. A couple weeks ago, he guarded (Libby’s) Ryggs Johnston, who’s a similar player to Leischner, where they really work hard without the ball and get a lot of shots coming off screens. A lot of that credit goes to (Holter), but it’s also collective. We’ve got a lot of help, a lot of guys hedging, a lot of awareness where their players are.”
“Since I was a freshman, that’s just been something I really enjoy doing. I like playing defense,” Holter said. “It’s kind of a lost art in today’s game. It’s fun to do, especially when we’re like that. It’s hard to score on us, because you see a lot of teams in basketball nowadays, they just want to go. I think it kills a lot of teams how tough we play defense, because they’re not used to it.”
Holter had just seven points in the contest, but he added five rebounds, four assists and six steals. Leischner managed just six points on 2-of-6 shooting. Matt Simkins led Butte Central with eight points. Laurel was led by sophomore Wylee Schnetter’s nine points.
Butte Central moves on to Friday’s semifinals where it will face Hardin. Laurel will face Browning in loser-out play Friday morning.
Hardin 69, Browning 59
Defending champion Hardin would not be denied.
The Bulldogs trailed by seven late in the third quarter but outscored Browning 32-15 over the game’s final 10 and a half minutes to pull away for a 69-59 win in the first round of the State A boys basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena on Thursday.
“Ugly. It was really ugly,” Hardin head coach Andrew RoundFace said. “I’m sure from both sides it was ugly. It’s good to have games like that when you just have to get in the mud and dig it out, fight for it, and that’s what we had to do (Thursday). We had to really fight for this one.”
At halftime, Browning held a 36-30 advantage over Hardin and extended it to 44-37 midway through the third quarter. But Hardin made a furious rally, closing the quarter on an 8-0 run to lead 45-44 at the start of the fourth quarter.
And that’s where Hardin’s Famous Lefthand took over.
After struggling through the first three quarters from the field, Lefthand had 13 points in the fourth quarter, including a Willie Mays-style over-the-shoulder catch on a long outlet pass from Andrew House that resulted in a three-point play and pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 59-52. Hardin outscored Browning 24-15 in the fourth quarter.
“Just going out and attacking the rim,” Lefthand said. “Use the backboard. Like my dad says, the backboard is your friend. I translated that onto the court.”
“It’s just (Lefthand’s) mentality,” Roundface said. “Every once in a while he’ll look to reinsurance about it, and I’ll just remind him that great shooters are going to have off nights, and there’s nothing you can do about, just keep shooting. If you’re a shooter, you’re going to shoot. I have all the trust in the world in him to make those shots. I know they’re going to come around sooner or later, and thankfully they did in the fourth quarter.”
Browning controlled the game for much of the first half, as the Indians held Hardin to 30 percent shooting. Tyree Whitcomb capped Browning’s first half with a buzzer beater from just inside half court that sent the Browning faithful into a frenzy.
The third quarter opened with seven quick points from Hardin, but Browning answered with an 8-0 run to grab the aforementioned 44-37 lead.
Lefthand’s offense grabbed the headlines on Thursday, but it was his defensive effort on Browning’s Riley Spoonhunter that ultimately allowed Hardin to pull away. Spoonhunter finished with 11 points and was 0 for 4 from the field in the second half.
Lefthand had game-highs of 30 points and 14 rebounds, while also nabbing two steals. Trae Hugs was Hardin’s only other player in double figures with 12. Browning was led by CJ Smith’s 16 points and Tyree Whitcomb’s 15-point, 11-rebound double-double.
Browning falls into loser-out play, where the Indians will face Laurel at noon on Friday. Hardin will face Butte Central in Friday night’s semifinals.
“They’re very well-coached. Brodie (Kelly) does an excellent job with his program. But it’s not going to be anything new for us,” RoundFace said of the matchup with Butte Central’s stingy defense. “With (Billings) Central and Laurel on our side, we go against everything. There’s nothing you can really throw at us at state that we haven’t seen, because those two teams bring everything towards us.”