GREAT FALLS — After going 21 years between state titles, the Hardin boys will have a chance to go back-to-back.
The Bulldogs built a 14-point halftime lead over Butte Central on Thursday in the semifinal round of the State A boys basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena but had to fight for dear life to hold on for a 79-73 win.
“They’re excited about it. Any school would be or any player would be,” Hardin head coach Andrew Round Face said. “It’s kind of become more of a tradition for us now — not necessarily being in the championship game, but making the state tournament. … They expect a lot out of us and I expect a lot of out of the boys, so it goes hand in hand.”
Hardin jumped on Butte Central from the get-go, leading 22-11 after the first quarter. Trae Hugs dominated early on for Hardin, scoring 16 first-half points to give the Bulldogs some cushion at the break.
“It was a really good start,” Round Face said. “Everybody was really into it. We knew what was at stake and the boys knew what was at stake. I told them we had to hit first. If we didn’t hit them first we were going to be in trouble.”
“They hit some remarkable shots, quick shots, transition shots, off-balance shots,” Butte Central head coach Brodie Kelly said. “They’ve got some guys with tremendous skill. I didn’t know how long they could sustain it. I felt like we were going to have a chance in the second half.”
The two teams traded blows throughout the third quarter, with Butte Central trimming the Hardin lead to 11 at one point, but the Bulldogs quickly pushed the lead back to 15. In the closing seconds of the quarter, Famous Lefthand drove right, spun back left and hit a nasty step-back jumper to push Hardin’s lead to 61-44 through three.
Central still had fight left in it in the fourth quarter, as the Maroons refused to let Hardin put them away. A Luke Heaphy 3-pointer with just less than three minutes to go cut Hardin’s lead to six, 71-65. Central then got within 72-70 after Hardin missed several free throws. Trailing 73-70, Central’s Brayden Harrington missed a potential game-tying 3, allowing Hardin the chance to seal it from the line.
“We knew they were going to go on a run, so we had to wait for it. Sure enough, they went on a run. I told the boys at halftime, ‘This is too good of a team not to have a run.’ And sure enough, they had it. Just lucky enough to withstand it,” Round Face said. “That’s the reason they’re here, that’s the reason everybody is here. Everybody is capable of erasing any kind of deficit, doesn’t matter how big or how small, they’re capable of doing it.”
“They gave us some opportunities in that second half, because they kept running guys at the ball and giving us some transition and open-court opportunities,” Kelly said. “Guys started knocking them down, shooting with confidence and making plays, momentum building. I’m super proud of our guys putting ourselves in position to win that. … If you add another minute to that game, we’re right there, we got it.”
But again, Hardin struggled to convert. At one point, Hardin missed 6 of 8 attempts from the charity stripe, but Central couldn’t convert on the offensive end, allowing Hardin to escape with the win.
Hugs had a game-high 32 points to lead Hardin, sinking 15 of his 18 free throw attempts, only missing in the final minute of the game. Harrington led Central with 15. Hardin shot 54.2 percent for the game and made 21 of 32 from the foul line.
In the game’s closing minutes, Lefthand, Hardin’s star junior who poured in 30 points in the opening round, left the game with an apparent right-leg injury and did not return. It’s unclear whether Lefthand will be available for Saturday night’s title game.
Hardin will take aim at back-to-back titles on Saturday night against Billings Central. Butte Central falls to loser-out action, where the Maroons will take on Livingston on Saturday morning.
Stats: Hardin 79, Butte Central 73
Billings Central 63, Hardin 51
Billings Central will play in its fourth consecutive State A title game on Saturday night.
Although the final score wasn’t indicative of the game, the Rams obliterated Hamilton 63-51 in the semifinal round of the State A boys basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena on Friday night.
Hamilton scored the game’s first seven points, but Central then closed the final 11:35 of the first half on a 31-6 run, taking a commanding 31-13 lead into the halftime break. Once the Rams got the lid off the basket, the points came in a hurry.
“Everyone on the team gets going, the bench is hipping and hollering. It helps us on the court,” Billings Central’s Seth Sasich said.
The Rams hit six first-half 3-pointers, while Hamilton made just 4 of 18 shot attempts in the first 16 minutes. Niki Krause got Central rolling with a pair of triples and Marcus Wittman’s four-point play toward the end of the second quarter tilted the momentum in the Rams’ favor.
“Maybe he didn’t realize that. I mean, it’s a big game. He came out here, he hit two big shots, hit a couple 3s and it really got us all rolling,” Sasich said of Krause.
“(Krause) is a high basketball-IQ kid. He’s been doing it all year for us. He’s a great player,” Billings Central head coach Jim Stergar said. “He’s a point guard playing alongside Chrishon (Dixon). He’s able to move over and play other positions because of that. He can definitely shoot the ball when he’s open, he can put the ball on the floor, he can pass, he does it all. He can go left, go right, he’s long defensively. He’s a special player.”
Central pushed its lead to 24 in the closing moments of the third quarter before taking a 22-point lead into the final frame. Hamilton outscored the Rams 28-18 in the fourth, but Central had built an insurmountable lead over the first three quarters.
For the second time in two nights, Central’s suffocating defensive effort was on display. The Rams held Hamilton’s Hunter Omlid to just 10 points after Omlid had 29 in Thursday’s first-round win. Although Hamilton shot much better in the second half, primarily the fourth quarter, the Broncs shot just 36.4 percent for the game, while Central shot 46.8 percent.
“Good offense for us leads to better defense,” Stergar said. “Definitely in that run there, guys can lock in, their energy is a little bit better and it just all kind of steamrolls and snowballs from there,” Stergar said.
Krause led all scorers with 15 points. Sam Gray had 11, Sasich eight, and Cade Herriford and Chrishon Dixon each had seven to round out the balanced attack for Central. Trey Searle led Hamilton with 14 points.
Billings Central turns its attention to Hardin for the fourth time this season. The Rams own a 2-1 advantage over the Bulldogs this year and topped Hardin in the Eastern A divisional championship game two weeks ago, 65-51. This is a rematch of last year’s State A title game, which Hardin won, 47-43.
“It’s just another game, that’s how we’ve got to approach it,” Stergar said. “What’s nice is we know everything about them. We just have to come out and perform, do what we do best and worry about what we do. … We’ve just got to believe and have faith that it’s going to work out this time.”
Hardin and Billings Central are set to tip at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening. Hamilton falls to loser-out play, where the Broncs will take on Browning on Saturday morning.
Stats: Billings Central 63, Hamilton 51
Friday loser-out games