BUTTE — Brett Clark wasn’t letting go of the basketball.
The Bozeman junior carried it off the court, into the locker room and still had it in his hands in the Butte Civic Center’s secondary gymnasium on Saturday night.
“Definitely (I’m keeping it). It’s going right next to the trophy,” said a smiling Clark.
The basketball was the one Clark had just put through the basket as the final buzzer sounded, the trophy was the State AA boys basketball championship trophy his Bozeman Hawks won as a result.
Tied 53-53 with 4.1 seconds remaining in overtime, Bozeman’s Ryan Simpson stood some 84 feet away from his basket prepared to inbound the ball against top-ranked Missoula Hellgate. Simpson launched the ball to half court, where three Hellgate defenders tipped the ball, which landed in the hands of the Hawks’ Carter Ash.
Ash quickly turned up-court, going airborne near the free-throw line, before dishing to a wide-open Clark underneath the basket. His layup fell through the basket as the clock hit its final zero.
“We have gone over that play a couple times in practice, we did it right before we came out here (Saturday) and (Ash) just got it in great position, gave me a great pass and I finished it,” said Clark, ball still in hand.
“When it went up I wasn’t sure if he got it off in time. I immediately, I’ve been through this enough, I immediately looked at the refs to make sure that that thing went in and then I think it was much more relief than anything after a game like that,” said Bozeman coach Wes Holmquist. “It was kind of just a weight just dropped off like, ‘Oh, thank goodness. We did it.’ I’m just really happy for the kids.”
On one hand, it was the perfect finish for a Bozeman team that had been arguably the strongest throughout the state tournament. On the other, it was heartbreak for a Hellgate program that had been favored to win the title since before the season began.
“There really isn’t anything that I can say that’s going to make them feel better at this point in time,” said Hellgate coach Jeff Hays. “But I told them how proud I was of them. … Sometimes that’s the way it goes, and we talk about it, ‘This is the worst thing that’s going to happen to you. You’re going to have a pretty good life.’ It’s not going to take away from, it’s going to take away from the season a little bit in the moment, but you have to tip your hats to Bozeman. They came up with one last play in the end on a loose-ball scramble, and they finished it off. It was tough.”
The final play will be the one talked about for years in both communities, but there were many leading up to Clark’s heroics that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Simpson’s block of Hellgate’s Rollie Worster on the right block.
Worster’s 3-pointer, one of his seven, that tied the game at 49-all with 1:50 remaining in overtime.
Fisher Richardson’s drive and layup that tied the game at 45-45, eventually forcing the overtime.
The top two teams in the tournament didn’t disappoint the packed house in the Civic Center, drawing multiple standing ovations throughout the fourth quarter and overtime as the Hawks and Knights battled and bruised, each aiming to clutch the first-place trophy.
“I didn’t think it was the cleanest game, but they competed. Both teams wanted that thing bad,” said Holmquist, who admitted he was mentally preparing for a second overtime before the final play. “It was competitive, it was a good clean game and it’s one of those ones where it’s hard to have a loser in that game.”
Worster was phenomenal, scoring 12 points in the first half, nine on on 3s, including two buzzer-beating triples at the end of each quarter. A 13-3 second-quarter run gave Bozeman a seven-point cushion, but Worster’s NBA-range 3-pointer would tie the game at 22-all at halftime.
“Rollie is a great player. I don’t know, he hit some phenomenal shots and I don’t know, he’s going to be a hell of a player (still), so,” Clark said of Worster, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
But it was Clark who finished the game with the biggest impact.
He scored seven points in the third quarter, 10 in the second half and opened the overtime with a layup to start a 5-0 run in the extra minutes.
“That was crazy, man. Coach has been talking all year about someone stepping up and (Saturday), I guess it was just my night,” Clark said. “I stepped up and we got the championship, that’s what it’s all about.”
Hellgate’s Logan Riddle split a pair of free throws to leave the game tied at 53-all, before Clark’s final shot shocked the crowd.
“You don’t (stay calm). I don’t feel like I do,” said Holmquist. “My heart was pumping, I’m still shaking. The adrenaline just gets flowing. You get locked in. I know the crowd was loud and you could hear some things here and there, but really, you’re so locked in when that stuff’s going on. Like I said, when that shot went in it was just kind of a five second, I didn’t even really know what just happened, you know?”
“That was definitely pretty stressful, but we’ve been working hard all year, I had faith in my teammates and I don’t know, we just figured it out,” said Clark, who finished with a team-high 18 points.
Lonergan had 10 points and seven rebounds, while Ash scored 10 and had three assists and a pair of steals. Simpson was credited five steals in the win, which was Bozeman’s first state championship since 2011. The Hawks finished runner-up the past three seasons.
“I’m just so happy for those kids. We go through the last three years and, again, it’s not something we talk about often, it really isn’t,” said Holmquist, “but I had a couple former players go into the locker room after the game there — Latrell McCutcheon, Robbie Simpson, Drew Huse is here — I told those guys the same thing, this is as much for them as anybody. Bennett Hostetler, Aaron Weidenaar, Trace Bradshaw.
“Those kids, it’s tough to go in the locker room after you lose that one. It was way more fun to go in there (Saturday) than the last three years, so I’m just really happy for the kids.”