GREAT FALLS — The defending state champions wanted to make a statement Thursday.
Box Elder imposed its will against Ekalaka, running past the Bulldogs for a 71-39 victory in the first round of the Class C girls basketball state tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena. The Bears exploded for a 25-point second quarter to blow the game open and take a 39-18 lead into the halftime break.
“I think we just had to make a statement and execute more of our offense. Then we had to pick up our defensive intensity, too,” said senior Maddie Wolf Chief.
Wolf Chief had six points and five rebounds in the first 16 minutes, while Lilly Gopher poured in 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting as Box Elder, which won the program’s first state title since 1998 last winter, overwhelmed Ekalaka. The Bulldogs had nine turnovers and made just 7 of 28 shots in the first half.
“We’ve been trying to get them to play 32 minutes. Like everybody, you want your team to be playing full. I thought they brought it that (second) quarter and really stepped it up, rebounding was a lot better,” said Box Elder head coach Joel Rosette. “I think the girls were ready for a quarter like that after last Saturday to show what they could do, as well.”
Like last year, Box Elder entered the state tournament coming off a loss. The Bears lost to Roy-Winifred in the Northern C divisional championship to enter the state bracket as a No. 2 seed. Ekalaka was the South’s No. 1 seed after dominating its divisional tournament.
The Bears, though, showed why they’re the defending champions and still considered among the favorites to hoist the first-place trophy Saturday night.
Joelnell Momberg scored a game-high 24 points, Gopher added 17 points and nine rebounds, Eve The Boy had 14 points, and Wolf Chief contributed eight points and nine rebounds. The Bears made only three 3-pointers in the game, but they shot nearly 50 percent from the floor (28 of 59) and dominated Ekalaka on the glass, 43 rebounds to 29.
“They were without their big (Claire Callahan, who was out with an injury). We obviously knew we had a size advantage,” Rosette said. “We tried to work it down and run a low-post game for some of our guards down there, girls that could post up, because we don’t really have much for posts, either. We were able to do that, be effective offensively and get shots going to the basket.”
Box Elder will meet Savage in a Friday semifinal at 8 p.m. The Bears were in Four Seasons Arena to watch the Warriors dispatch Charlo in the first round with a harassing defense.
“I think they’re going to be a fast-paced team, too,” Wolf Chief said. “They push the ball, and they kept defensive pressure up and down the court.”
“They’re a good team,” Rosette added of the Warriors. “They haven’t lost but one game, last week, I think it was, too. Solid guards, they handle the ball, they pressure, play good man-to-man. We’re excited.”
Ekalaka will meet Charlo in a loser-out game at 2 p.m. Friday.
Stats: Box Elder 71, Ekalaka 39
Savage 42, Charlo 25
If pressure makes diamonds, the Savage girls might want to open a jewelry store.
The Warriors forced Charlo into 21 turnovers and 1-of-17 shooting in the first half of a 42-25 demolition of the Vikings in the first round of the Class C girls basketball state tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena Thursday.
Savage, led by senior Tyler Lien, went on a 23-2 run in the first half, holding Charlo scoreless in the second quarter to take a 23-6 lead into halftime.
“We’re a really good defensive team. That’s what we like, that’s what we’re known for,” said Lien, who had five steals and 10 points in the first half. “We just like to get after them. Pressure is what we live off.”
After building a 4-0 lead early in the first quarter, Charlo had no answer for Savage, which forced turnovers and bad shots with an aggressive, swarming, trapping defense. The effort on that end of the floor led to run-out points for the Warriors. They scored 15 points off turnovers in the first 16 minutes.
Savage kept the pressure on in the third quarter, growing the lead to as many as 23 points, before coach Bill Triplett emptied his bench in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense has been getting better each and every week,” Triplett said. “They’re learning to leave their man and go trap and someone else cover for their man and do multiple switches all at once, and it’s been pretty effective. We’re a pretty darn defensive team.”
“Our defense turns into offense quite often, because our guards can get up and down the floor pretty well,” Triplett continued. “(Haylie) Conradsen’s got really good wheels, and a lot of times she’s the recipient of those deals. Lien does a great job of looking up the floor. Without our defense, if we were just to go back and sit back and play regular man-to-man, we would be just another team, but our defense has been kind of our trademark.”
Added Lien: “Once we get going on defense, get steals and rebounds and stuff and things are going our way on defense, it pushes up on offense, and we get things to go easily more and it just motivates us more.”
Lien finished the game with those 10 first-half points and five steals. Haylie Conradsen had a game-high 13 points, and Kiana Miller added eight points and eight rebounds in front of a raucous Savage crowd that made the trip for the 6:30 p.m. tipoff.
“It’s awesome. Our team lives off of our crowd. We couldn’t do it without them,” Lien said. “They traveled so far, every game, taking school off, it’s awesome.”
Savage, which entered the state tournament as the No. 2 seed out of the East, will play Box Elder or Ekalaka in Friday’s late semifinal game scheduled to tip at 8 p.m.
Charlo, which got a team-high 10 points from Liev Smith, will play a loser-out game at 2 p.m. Friday.