GREAT FALLS – Billings Central has gotten the proverbial monkey off its back.
After three consecutive runner-up finishes, the Rams are on top of Class A. Billings Central exacted revenge for last year’s loss to Hardin, defeating the Bulldogs 62-44 on Saturday night in the championship of the State A boys basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena.
“This has been a long time coming. I know we’ve been here a lot. Second place sucks, this is a lot better,” Billings Central head coach Jim Stergar said. “This is for all the teams that have been here and just haven’t been able to do it — all the way back to my Ronan days, Billings Senior days and now at Central. This is for all those guys and all my players that are former players in the crowd that came to watch this. It’s just an amazing thing for me as their coach. … It feels fake right now. It’s beyond words right now. It’ll soak in later.”
“(Friday) we were talking about what legacy we wanted to leave. We just wanted to be the team that got over the hump, and we did that,” Central’s Sam Gray said.
The two teams were tied at 11 after the first quarter, but Central outscored Hardin 21-14 in the second to take a 32-25 lead into halftime. Hardin certainly wasn’t going to go quietly, though, and the Bulldogs made their run in the third quarter.
After the Rams pushed the lead to eight, Hardin promptly cut it back to four, 37-33, with just under four minutes to play. But from there, Chrishon Dixon decided to take matters into his own hands. Dixon split the defense in the open floor on back-to-back possessions and finished strong at the rim, prompting the Billings Central student section to break out in chants of ‘You can’t guard him!’ and pushing the Rams’ lead to nine after three quarters.
“We’ve got some dudes. We’ve got some players,” Stergar said. “Chrishon Dixon is the best player in Montana. If he didn’t prove it right there on about 85 percent of his body this year, he’s been playing all season hurt, banged up from football. He’s probably going to have to have surgery. The kid has stuck it out the entire season, playing about 85 percent. He turned it on enough today to just separate himself. All these guys, they put in so many countless hours. It takes talent to win this many games. To win a state title you have to have players, it’s definitely not coaching. These guys put in the hours and deserve every bit of this.
“The kid as a freshman starts for us and we play in four straight state titles with that kid. That tells you how good the kid is. If that isn’t enough to say he’s the best player right now, then I don’t know what is,” Stergar added about his star senior.
“If I get going, can’t nobody stop me, and that’s just my mentality now. I’ve had to grow into a man just to have that mentality,” Dixon said.
Dixon continued to put pressure on the defense in the fourth quarter. He got to the free throw line eight times, making six. When Dixon wasn’t carving through the Hardin defense off the bounce, he was attracting its attention enough for Central’s shooters to find room to operate.
Hardin, though, would make one final push at Central. Six points in the span of 50 seconds brought Hardin within nine, 53-44, with 3:25 to play, but the Rams had an answer. Dixon found a wide-open Seth Sasich, who knocked down a 3 to essentially put the game out of reach.
For the third time in three nights, the Rams’ defense helped seal the deal. Hardin struggled mightily from the floor, primarily in the second half, shooting just 13 of 51 (25.5 percent). On the flip side, Central shot 19 of 39 (48.7 percent) and sunk 20 of its 27 attempts from the foul line.
“We hang our hat on playing good D and rebounding the ball and that’s exactly what we did,” Stergar said. “I told (Dixon) with about four, five minutes left in the game, I looked at him and said, ‘Hey dude, you’re going to have to play. You have to play, you have to find the energy to finish this game. Defensively is where we did it.”
“(The energy) just comes from the bench mob,” Dixon said with a smile. “They really just help us to stay focused and energized, because having us switch on platoons, when we got in we knew we had to keep going and going.”
Dixon proved the Billings Central student section right, as he scored a game-high 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting and made 8 of 12 foul shots. Dixon also grabbed seven boards and dished out five assists. Sam Gray added 12 points and six rebounds, while Cade Herriford scored 11 and grabbed eight boards.
Hardin’s Famous Lefthand, who left the semifinal with an injury, played nearly the entire game. He was hounded by Dixon, however, and scored just 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Eric Woods was the only other Hardin player in double figures with 11.
This is Billings Central’s first state championship since 1996.