What caught my eye: Defending champs, unbeatens fall in wild hoops weekend

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High school basketball teams returned from the holiday break last week, with many opening up conference play. There were statement wins all over the state, such as Billings Central’s boys and girls taking down Hardin and the Belt girls falling on the road. But those are just a few of the weekend’s notable games, as there were multiple defending champions and unbeaten teams suffering defeats.

Class AA

Boys

  • Bozeman and Billings West figure to battle for the Eastern AA regular-season title throughout the year, but the Hawks got the better of West this time. Bozeman used a late-game spurt to pull away from West for a six-point win in Billings. This positions the Hawks, No. 2 in the Class AA coaches poll, to control the Eastern AA.
  • Helena Capital picked up a huge non-conference win over visiting Great Falls High over the weekend, handing the Bison their first loss of the season in the process. While Capital has suffered some gut-wrenching defeats early in the season, the Bruins turn to conference play on a high note after taking down last year’s State AA third-place finisher.

Girls

  • The rematch of the 2018 State AA girls title game wasn’t much of a game at all. Helena High grabbed a 30-point lead in the first half over visiting Missoula Sentinel on its way to a near 50-point victory over the Spartans. The Bengals cemented themselves as the top team in Class AA and the inaugural coaches poll reflects that, as the Bengals received all but one first-place vote tallied.
  • Billings West was the only other girls team to receive a first-place vote, receiving one. But the Bears have earned it to this point having racked up a perfect 6-0 record. Bozeman was the latest victim of West’s success, as the Bears won in Bozeman by 13 points. Billings West looks like the clear-cut favorite in the Eastern AA as conference play gets into full swing.

Class A

Boys

  • Billings Central got the better of Hardin in Round 1 of the 2019 edition of the rivalry. The Rams lost to Hardin in last year’s State A title game, but Central’s win at Rimrock Auto Arena puts it right back atop the Eastern A. These two teams delivered three classic games last year and look primed do so at least one more time this season as they battle for supremacy in the competitive Eastern A.
  • Butte Central has raced out of the gates to a perfect 8-0 record, but the Maroons had to scratch and claw to hold on to that mark. Livingston led Butte Central late in the contest, but the Maroons have continued to find ways to win close games all season. Despite giving up a season-high 56 points, Butte Central remains the only unbeaten team in the Western A.

Girls

  • Billings Central found itself sitting at home during last year’s State A girls basketball tournament, but the Rams have made it clear that they intend to be there this year. Central took down 2018 runner-up Hardin by six points and led for the majority of the game. Central got strong play from sophomore Isabelle Erickson and freshman Solei Elletson, showing that the Rams will be a contender for years to come, too.
  • Frenchtown completed one of the more improbable comebacks on Thursday evening against Hamilton. Frenchtown found itself trailing 30-20 late in the third quarter, but the Broncs rallied and scored the final 14 points of the game and held Hamilton scoreless the entire fourth quarter to win a thriller, 34-30. Frenchtown has lost just two games this season, both by less than 10 points.

Class B

Boys

  • Bigfork joined Hardin as defending state champions to suffer their first losses of the season over the weekend, as the Vikings fell on the road at Deer Lodge, 49-47. Deer Lodge has now made it known to the rest of the Western B that the Wardens will be a contender in the postseason. Deer Lodge’s only loss of the season was to Missoula Loyola, which lost at home to Bigfork earlier this season. The parity within the Western B should make for an intriguing divisional tournament.
  • Missoula Loyola continues to put up points at a high rate. The Rams hung 85 on St. Ignatius to drop the previously unbeaten Bulldogs by 28 points. Loyola has suffered losses to Class A Hamilton and Class B Bigfork, but the Rams have scored more than 60 points in every game this season.

Girls

  • Another defending champion went down over the weekend, as Three Forks lost to rival Townsend on the road by one point. Three Forks has struggled in the early part of the season but showed in the loss that it will still be a tough out in the Southern B. Coming off a third-place finish at the State B tournament last year, Townsend has its sights set on another appearance on Saturday night at the state tournament. The latest win for the Bulldogs gives them quite the resume after January’s first weekend.
  • Roundup appeared to be flying high after handing Columbus its first loss of the season, but the Panthers hit a wall against Malta. The Mustangs held Roundup to just 21 points in the win. Malta has suffered losses to Harlem and Wolf Point by a combined five points, but the win over Roundup marks back-to-back games Malta has held its opponent to less than 30 points.

Class C

Boys

  • In one game in eastern Montana over the weekend, two players combined to score 80 points. Wibaux’s Cobe Begger and Jordan’s Keenan Murnion lit it up in Wibaux. Begger scored 47 points, the only 40-point performance in the state to date, on 15-of-20 shooting, and Murnion scored 33 points for Jordan. Begger’s 47 points are a new school record in Wibaux, breaking the previous record of 40 held by Chase Bertelsen.
  • Plentywood continues its climb into the upper echelon of teams in the Eastern C. The Wildcats held off Culbertson for a two-point overtime win over the weekend and keep their unblemished record intact. The Wildcats will have another big game against Fairview on Saturday that could propel them to divisional title contender status in the Eastern C.

Girls

  • Both the Box Elder and Fort Benton girls teams entered their match up unbeaten. However, the defending champion Box Elder Bears flexed their muscles once again, taking down the Longhorns by 15 in Fort Benton. Reigning State C MVP Lilly Gopher scored a game-high 35 points in the win, tying the best single-game output for any girl in the state this season. Fort Benton will have its chance for revenge on Feb. 1 in Box Elder.
  • After looking like an untouchable juggernaut for much of the month of December, the Belt girls have come back down to earth. Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap upset the previously unbeaten Huskies with a five-point overtime victory on Saturday. Hobson-Moore-Judith Gap’s only loss came in its second game of the season at Fort Benton.
Alec Bofinger

Alec Bofinger

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