We are nearly fully immersed in conference play on Montana’s high school basketball courts as we enter the second weekend of 2020.
Class AA jumps into conference play this weekend, but there were still non-conference games to be played last weekend. Two challengers to Missoula Hellgate’s boys in the Western AA kept their hot starts going, while the Hellgate girls are showing they’ll be a handful, too.
The Southwestern A sent four teams to the State A boys tournament last year, and the conference looks exceptionally strong again. However, one of the perceived top teams took a blow from a rising contender in the Central A. Billings Central’s girls kept their foot on the gas pedal, defeating two Class AA teams over the weekend.
District 1B saw two of its boys heavyweights go at it over the weekend, while District 3B powerhouse Colstrip saw a massive win streak get snapped. The Southern B girls divisional tournament should be a doozy, as top teams in the 4B and 5B continue to beat up on each other.
The Western C boys could wind up being a thrilling tournament, too. Defending champion Manhattan Christian continues to light up the scoreboard, while Twin Bridges trounces opponents. But another name is beginning to emerge out of District 14C. The two Southern C girls representatives from last season both lost over the weekend, paving the way for Melstone’s girls to leap into title contention.
That and more highlight what caught my eye over the weekend.
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- The Helena Capital boys continued their solid start to the season by throttling Great Falls CMR 69-42 on Saturday night at home. Capital’s lone loss to start off the year was at Billings West. The Bruins should be among the teams to challenge Missoula Hellgate for the top spot in the Western AA, but an upcoming game against the Knights this weekend will show how big, or small, that gap is.
- Missoula Sentinel is another team out west that looks like a legitimate contender. The Spartans finished off the early non-conference portion of their schedule a perfect 4-0, and they’ve done it in a multitude of ways. Sentinel has put up more than 80 points, but they’ve also won when scoring less than 60. Saturday’s upcoming contest with Kalispell Glacier will be critical for postseason positioning.
- Holy cow. You couldn’t have asked for a better ending to ring in the new year. Billings Central’s boys came back from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit on Thursday night to stun Billings Senior at the buzzer for a classic win in the crosstown rivalry. It was also win No. 300 for Rams head coach Jim Stergar. This year’s Central team is full of faces that weren’t on the floor last season, and a win like this can flip the script for a team. Stergar typically has his teams playing their best late in the season, and this year is likely going to be no different.
- Just before Christmas, Livingston nearly pulled the upset of the year down in Hardin, but the Rangers fell on a buzzer beater by Famous Lefthand. That doesn’t appear to have damaged the psyche of Livingston, as it picked up a giant win at Dillon on Saturday, 61-55. Livingston came on strong at the end of last season and showed well at the state tournament. That looks to have carried over, as the Rangers could be a real threat in the Eastern A.
- Tanner Parsons was back in the lineup for Shelby, but the Coyotes still came up short against District 1B rival Fairfield on Friday, 71-57. The game was closer than the score indicates, as Fairfield was able to pull away late in the contest. Shelby should continue to grow as Parsons acclimates himself back into the flow, but Fairfield has a giant conference win on its resume early in the year.
- Colstrip had won 26 consecutive games in District 3B play until Saturday night. Lodge Grass handed the Colts a 77-51 defeat, the first time Colstrip had lost in conference play since the 2017 District 3B championship game. The Indians have been putting points up on everyone this season, as their season-low to this point is 73. A huge non-conference tilt looms for Lodge Grass, though, as they’ll take on Huntley Project Friday afternoon.
- Manhattan Christian isn’t going anywhere. The defending State C champions hung 100 points on White Sulphur Springs over the weekend, showing that the offense still packs a punch. The Eagles hit 13 triples, had 25 assists and turned the ball over just 4 times. There’s weapons all over the floor for Manhattan Christian, so don’t be surprised if this team threatens triple digits again at some point this season.
- The Western C has dominated Class C basketball in recent years with Arlee and Manhattan Christian. The Warriors have moved up to Class B, so who’s next? We’ve seen Twin Bridges nearly breakthrough, and the Falcons have been dominant again this year. But another contender looks to be brewing out in District 14C where Arlee used to reside. St. Regis handed Noxon a 24-point defeat this weekend, which is right in line with what the Tigers have done all season. St. Regis has run through its opponents thus far and there’s no reason to believe that won’t last through the district tournament. Keep an eye on the Tigers.
- Missoula Hellgate has been playing excellent basketball since about the midway point last season. The Knights held off Great Falls CMR for a 42-39 victory last Friday, pushing Hellgate’s record to a perfect 4-0. Hellgate’s success comes from a roster largely comprised of underclassmen, so its upcoming weekend slate of Helena High and Helena Capital will show just how much the youthful Knights have grown.
- Billings West was expected to be among Class AA’s top teams this year, but the Golden Bears have had some slip-ups. Most recently, the Bears were beaten by crosstown foe Billings Central. The Rams are loaded and a favorite in Class A, so don’t look too much into the loss, but it’s concerning to see West lose twice in the fashion they have early in the year.
- Billings Central’s win over Billings West wasn’t its only victory over a Class AA foe over the weekend, as the Rams also knocked off Billings Senior. Two more impressive wins for Billings Central on an already gaudy resume. As the Rams get deeper in conference play against familiar opponents, can they still maintain the same level of dominance?
- Columbia Falls is making a case as the best Class A girls team in the state, too. The Wildkats handed Bigfork a 55-41 loss over the weekend to keep their perfect record intact. Columbia Falls also boasts wins over Class AA Kalispell Glacier and Class A Glendive, which should compete for a spot at the state tournament in the loaded Eastern A. A matchup with Browning later this month will likely show the dominant girls team in the Western A.
- Buckle up Southern B girls basketball fans, the district and divisional tournaments are going to be entertaining. In District 4B action, Roundup handled Huntley Project from the opening tip on Thursday night for a 49-31 win. Both teams were without key players, but Roundup made a statement to the rest of the district with that win. With how competitive the top portion of the district appears to be, seeding will be critical in the postseason.
- Columbus made the short trip to Big Timber, but the Cougars were handed a 41-34 defeat by the Sheepherders. Big Timber has quietly put together one of the most impressive early-season resumes in Class B girls basketball, as the Herders have wins over Fairfield, Three Forks, Townsend and now Columbus. Big Timber could wind up being the team to beat in District 5B this year.
- Since she began to walk, Melstone’s Draya Wacker has dazzled crowds with her ballhandling skills, whether it be during halftime performances or in-game action. On Friday, the Sophomore hit a scoring milestone, crossing the 1,000-point threshold for her career, which began in eighth grade. That milestone mark was achieved in a blowout win over Wibaux, one of the Southern C’s representatives at last year’s state tournament. Add in Wibaux’s victory on Saturday over Ekalaka, the other Southern C representative, and Melstone looks like it could be in contention for a state title berth – something the Broncs haven’t seen since 1977.
- Another weekend in the books, another big-time showdown in Eastern C girls basketball. This weekend, it was Plentywood beating Froid-Medicine Lake, 48-35. It’s early in the season, but Plentywood, along with Westby-Grenora, the only team to beat the Wildcats, has established itself as one of the top teams in the Eastern C. Froid-Medicine Lake will have that opportunity ahead with Westby-Grenora laying in wait on the schedule.