State basketball recap: Star performances help teams snap droughts, continue runs

Whether a team was trying to snap a state championship drought or continue a dominant run, Montana high school programs turned to their stars Saturday night to bring home seven state basketball titles.

STATE A BOYS – Billings Central 62, Hardin 44

Hardin and Billings Central have played maybe the best rivalry in the state over the past two seasons, and after three title game losses in a row, Chrishon Dixon wasn’t letting Central lose a fourth.

“Yeah, I had to do it, because last year I told them, this is the year we’re going to win it,” Dixon said about Central’s loss to Hardin in 2018. “We left it all on the court last year, and I was like, ‘This is not how I’m going to end my high school career.'”

“The kid as a freshman starts for us, and we play in four straight state titles with that kid,” said head coach Jim Stergar. “That tells you how good that kid is.”

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with in my life,” echoed senior forward Sam Gray. “He’s going to be a heck of a player at the next level. I’m jsut so proud of what he’s done. He’s grown up so much in these last four years, and I couldnt’t be prouder of him.”

It’s the program’s first title since 1996.

STATE A GIRLS – Havre 42, Hardin 36

It’s not often Havre’s Kyndall Keller is held without a field goal for an entire half, but after going 0-for-6 in the first 16 minutes against Hardin, the junior poured in 16 points in the second half to lead Havre High School to back to back state championships.

“She’s a gamer, and even when we don’t play our best, we can go out and find ways to win and that’s I think what we did,” said head coach Dustin Kraske.

“Yeah, my teammates did a great job – it was a slow first half, but after halftime, we knew it was out last game – so we got after it,” said Keller.

Havre only loses three seniors for next year’s team, and return all five starters, so we could be talking about a three peat in 2020.

STATE C BOYS – Manhattan Christian 83, Arlee 51

Arlee and Manhattan Christian met for the third straight year, but this time the Eagles finally got their revenge. They were led by 42 points from Caleb Bellach, with his father watching on the sidelines as the head coach – a dream ending to a dream season.

“I never dreamed I’d have a special player like that to coach, let alone it be my own son,” said Jeff Bellach. “He and I have pushed each other to the limits, and I can’t even put into words how proud I am of what he’s become.”

“My dad has coached a lot of basketball – he’s the best coach I’ve ever played for – and he deserves it the most,” added Caleb. “It was awesome to go out on top with him.”

It’s the Eagles’ first state title in over 30 years.

STATE AA BOYS – Bozeman 55, Missoula Hellgate 53 (OT)

Just like Billings Central, the Bozeman Hawks avoided becoming the Buffalo Bills of high school basketball last night as they avoided a fourth straight loss in a title game. Instead they came away with a huge OT victory over Missoula Hellgate thanks to the play of the year in the final seconds as Brett Clark scored the game-winning lay-up as time expired.

“We have gone over that play a couple times in practice,” said Clark after the game. “We did it right before we came out here and Carter just got it in great position, gave me a great pass and I finished it.”

“I think it was much more relief than anything, after a game like that,”head coach Wes Holmquist said. “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.”

STATE AA GIRLS – Helena 55, Billings West 37

History was made last night as Helena High three-peated as the Class AA state girls champions. And for the Bengals, the third was just as sweet as the first two.

“We’ve spent a lot of time together, especially with those seniors,” said head coach Eric Peterson, “so to be able to pull them out of the game, give them a hug and tell them how proud of them I am is something special that I’ll remember forever.”

“The work we put in is just crazy and our coaching staff is amazing, so that’s all I can say,” echoed Jamie Pickens, who was named the Montana Girls Gatorade Player of the Year for the second straight season earlier in the week. “My teammates helped me out, it’s not an individual effort, it’s a team effort, for sure. One and two were great, but the third one was the final for me, so I think this is the sweetest one we’ve had.”

STATE B GIRLS – Wolf Point 48, Florence 35

Wolf Point won their first state title since 2003 Saturday night, something sisters Imani and Mary Bighorn are proud to be a part of.

“Oh my gosh, my twin sister, me and Mary, I’m so happy I got to play with her this last year,” Imani cried through an emotional postgame interview. “It just means everything to me, I just love her so much. That was my biggest thing. I was like, ‘When I come back, I have to win state for my team. I have to win state for my sister. I have to prove to the team last year that I could do it this year.’”

“We said we’re just like any other family. We’re going have ups and downs,” said head coach Cody Larson. “I’m going to get mad, they’re going to get mad at me. But at the end, we want to make sure we’re doing our best in everything. Well, we couldn’t have picked a better time to do it. Wolves are state champs again, so that’s pretty cool.”

STATE B BOYS – Bigfork 47, Missoula Loyola 43

Bigfork repeated as the State B boys champions, though it wasn’t easy. The Vikings were down most of the first half, but in the third quarter, something clicked.

“We were playing a lot of solo ball, so we got it together and started playing some team,” said Logan Gilliard of the halftime adjustment. “When we got up like three of four, maybe six, I think, right there we knew we were rolling. We were playing some good defense, we had it there, we thought we were rolling. It’s amazing, I can’t really describe the feeling. It’s awesome.”

Casey Conlon

Casey Conlon

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