BUTTE — Wes Holmquist doesn’t have any gray hairs, not noticeable ones anyway, but he was checking for them on Friday evening.
Holmquist’s Bozeman boys basketball team lost a 24-point second-half lead before hanging on, 72-63, in the State AA boys baketball tournament semifinal against Billings West.
“It felt like the longest game ever,” Holmquist laughed after the win. “I think we were up 24, is that what it was? I turned to our bench and I said, ‘We cannot get comfortable.’ The first time we played West in early January, I think we were up 17 in the fourth quarter, they cut it to two. We know they can score in a hurry, man they hit some tough shots in that fourth quarter, I mean contested shots.”
And Holmquist had a front-row seat.
Trailing 48-24 midway through the fourth quarter, Billings West would go on a 15-4 run to close the third quarter, then utilized a 7-0 run at the beginning of the fourth to claw within 52-46 with five minutes to play.
“We were turning the ball over a lot, that definitely didn’t help,” said Bozeman senior Ryan Simpson, who scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the win. “When we started to protect the ball and look for open buckets, that really helped us in the end.”
“To me, the longer I’ve been doing this, the mental aspect of this game is so important. It’s hard to teach, it’s hard to preach and it’s hard to model,” said Holmquist. “I was trying to keep my cool over there, too, when inside I was going crazy myself, but I think these guys held their composure together really well when they were hitting shots. All of a sudden it was a 12-point lead, then it’s a six-point lead, then it’s a four-point lead.”
The lead eventually dissipated to three, 63-60, with under two minutes to play. West’s Cade Tyson opened the fourth quarter with a transition 3-pointer, was fouled on a successful baseline floater, making the free throw, hit three free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer, made another 3, then knocked down the triple that brought the Bears to within 63-60.
When all was said and done, Tyson scored 15 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter.
“I think we just had to get out on him. He was the one knocking down the shots in the end, so after we stopped him, got defensive boards, I think that really helped us, as well,” said Simpson.
The Hawks didn’t make a single field goal in the fourth quarter, instead winning the game at the free throw line. Bozeman made 23 of 26 free throws in the final eight minutes and was 25 of 33 in the contest. Twelve of the fourth-quarter free throws came after Tyson’s final 3 made the score 63-60.
“I thought it was a really big deal for our team. We were practicing free throws (Friday) morning, we knew that it was going to be a close game, so free throws really helped us seal the deal in the end,” Simpson said.
After a fast-paced, high-scoring first quarter that entertained the near-capacity crowd at the Butte Civic Center, Bozeman blew the game open in the second quarter behind Ryan Lonergan and Carter Ash. Lonergan scored four straight points midway through the period to extend the lead to eight, then Ash scored the next five, with his 3-pointer capping a 12-0 run that put the Hawks ahead 33-20.
Bozeman led 35-22 at halftime.
“We were living high at halftime,” said Simpson. “Our goal was to get it inside to Ryan (Lonergan), he’s been a beast all year, so that was our main goal. When (West) started crashing down, that gave me and Carter (Ash) some options and I think that really helped us.”
That halftime lead ballooned to 24 after Lonergan scored four quick points, followed by an Ash steal and layup. Lonergan finished with a team-high 21 points, while Ash added 13 on three 3-pointers. Simpson’s corner 3 with just over four minutes to play in the third put the Hawks ahead 46-24, then Lonergan made a baseline jumper for the 48-24 lead.
Despite 14 turnovers, many during West’s second-half run, Bozeman was efficient on offense, 21-of-39 shooting (54 percent) with a 5-for-10 mark from the 3-point line. Ash had three 3s, while Simpson added the other two.
Friday’s win secured a fourth straight state championship berth for Bozeman, which has lost the past three, including last year’s title game against Great Falls CMR. Simpson, as well as Lonergan, has been along for the ride on those championship game runs, and hopes this year’s finale ends with the Hawks hoisting the first-place trophy.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me and Ryan to watch this and play in it, as well, to experience it. Finally, our last year, we get to play in it, so hopefully we come out on top,” he said. “I don’t care who we play. We’ve played both (Great Falls High and Missoula Hellgate) this year. I think it will be a good game either way, but I just hope we walk in tomorrow and it’s a good game for us.”
“These guys have been in the locker room when we’ve lost them. Ryan and Ryan have been with us for three years, they’ve seen it, they’ve felt it. You hope that’s a little extra motivation for them,” said Holmquist. “I think the media makes a little bigger deal about it, it’s not something we’ve talked about all year. But just getting to the state championship game is obviously an accomplishment. It hasn’t gone our way, but we’re going to do everything in our power to win one (Saturday).
“The last three years don’t matter. We’re going to step out there, we have 24 hours left to figure it out, and I guarantee these kids are going to go out there and compete.”
Bozeman will meet either Missoula Hellgate in Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. championship, while Billings West takes on Missoula Sentinel in the loser-out bracket at 9 a.m. at Butte High School.
Missoula Hellgate 61, Great Falls High 38
Abe Johnson became pretty good friends with Jackson Coles over the summer, playing basketball together throughout those summer months. Saturday night, Johnson and Coles will briefly put that friendship on hold to be on opposite benches in a state championship game.
Johnson’s Missoula Hellgate Knights defeated Great Falls High, 61-38, in Friday night’s semifinal round of the State AA boys basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center, securing a berth in the state title game against Coles and the Bozeman Hawks.
“They’re a great team and they’ve been playing really well the last couple of days. I have a few buddies on that team, which is always tough playing against friends, but they’ve been playing well, they have size, they can shoot it,” Johnson said of Bozeman. “It’s going to be a great matchup for us, but I think we have to just stay with what we’ve done all season and we’ll be (fine).”
Johnson scored a game-high 17 points and hauled in nine rebounds, one shy of a double-double, as the Knights showcased their No. 1 ranking with the lopsided win over Great Falls High. Johnson made 6 of 9 field goals and hit 5 of 7 free throws to total his 17 points.
“(Johnson) is a terrific player. He’s a terrific player, he works hard, he gets better every night. They didn’t double-team him, he had some space to operate, that’s going to be a different story (Saturday) night against Bozeman, but you know what, he’s really good rebounding, does pretty good defensively,” said Hellgate coach Jeff Hays. “Offensively he will, I thought (Thursday) night he was really good going at shots, he didn’t convert those, but tonight he did. He kind of carried us the first half.”
Tied 8-8 after the opening quarter, Hellgate would take a 20-16 lead into halftime. Johnson scored seven of his points in the first 16 minutes, while Rollie Worster had nine of his 15 at halftime.
But it was in the third quarter the Knights displayed their size, beating the Bison for position inside and getting good looks within five feet of the basket. Hellgate scored 27 points in the third and blew the game open with a 47-31 fourth-quarter lead.
“We wanted to get the ball inside. Like you said, we had a size advantage at every position. I thought the first half, especially early on, we were really stagnant and forcing the ball inside,” admitted Hays. “That slowed us down a little bit, but then we started to move the basketball and we still found a way inside. From there, we have enough finishers that it kind of turned the tides.”
“It’s just really satisfying when you make a good move and it goes in, so I was just really excited about that,” said Johnson. “A couple of them didn’t go in (Thursday) night, but they did (Friday), which feels great. The other guys played well, too.”
Bridger Deden scored all nine of his points in the second half, while Logan Riddle added eight. Riddle finished the game with five rebounds.
Great Falls High, a shorter, faster squad that prides itself on its transition, couldn’t get shots to fall in the second half, going just 7 of 25, a rough 28 percent. The Bison were 14 of 40 in the game (35 percent) and made 4 of 14 3-pointers.
Blake Thelen had a team-high 13 points, Riley Callery chipped in with 10 and the Knights limited standout Kyle Torgerson to three points on 1-of-8 shooting.
For Hellgate, it’s the program’s first appearance in the Class AA title game since 2014, when the Knights fell to Helena Capital in Tres Tinkle’s senior season. Hellgate defeated Capital in the 2013 state championship.
“It feels great. It’s been a long time coming,” said Hays. “(Bozeman has) been really impressive here at the state tournament. They have all the ingredients of a really good team, OK? They have good guard play, Simpson back on the wing, that adds another dimension there, and then they have (Ryan) Lonergan and (Kenneth) Eiden inside. Lonergan has been terrific. I really appreciate the way they do play. They play good defense, they rebound, and offensively they are moving the basketball and shooting it well. They will be a tough test.”
“It’s going to be tough, but I think both teams are going to be a little bit tired. I don’t know, I might not sleep much tonight,” laughed Johnson. “It’s going to come down to who’s going to work harder and I think that will lead to who’s going to hit more shots, as well. As I said, I think both teams are going to be a little tired, but it’s still going to be a great game, a lot of fun.”
The Knights and Hawks will meet Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the first of two state championship games at the Butte Civic Center. Great Falls High faces Helena High Saturday at 9 a.m. in loser-out action.