By Bill Foley
The Dillon Beavers are back in a very familiar spot.
Led by their stingy 1-3-1 zone defense, the Beavers fought past Polson for a 42-32 win Saturday night in the championship game of the Western A Divisional boys’ basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center. (Stats; Bracket)
The victory kept Dillon’s perfect season alive. The Beavers will take a 17-0 record into next week’s Class A State tournament in Great Falls. Dillon opens the tournament at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday against Hardin, the No. 4 seed from the Eastern A.
Polson will go to State at 15-2, and both of its losses came to Dillon.
The trip is the first to State for Dillon since the Beavers won the second of back-to-back titles in 2017. Three years without a state tournament seems like an eternity in Dillon.
“From my standpoint, it felt like forever,” longtime Dillon coach Terry Thomas said with a smile after his team captured the divisional title.
Thomas will take an undefeated team into the State tournament for the third time. The first two times — 2007 and 2012 — his Beavers won it all.
Thomas guided the Beavers to the crown in 2009 as well as the back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017. He also assisted on Dillon’s state title teams in 1990 and 1999.
The remarkable thing about the 2020 Beavers is that they are one year removed from a disappointing 7-14 campaign.
Thomas said the turnaround started with outstanding leadership from his seniors — Jonny Reiser, Daxon Graham, Cole Truman and Jace Fitzgerald.
“It started in the summer, both on the court and in the weight room,” said Thomas, who also won five Class A titles as head football coach in Dillon. “They were able to open up and share it with the younger kids and bring them along. We really developed that chemistry.
“Then we’ve got a little bit of everything,” Thomas said. “We’ve got a little bit of inside play. We’ve got good guard play and some wings that can do some things. It kind of fit together pretty good.”
That little bit of everything showed Friday night, especially on defense. The relentless Beaver zone defense kept Polson in check until the Dillon offense finally put enough together.
“The kids a nice job putting pressure on the ball and still being able to get from one side of the court to the other, especially the corners,” Thomas said. “(Polson has) really good players that can pass the ball and attack, so it was quite a challenge. Our kids were up to it tonight.”
Dillon led 11-6 after the first quarter, and the Beavers took a 16-14 advantage into halftime. The Beavers led 23-21 after three quarters before finishing off the game with a 19-11 fourth quarter.
It was a game in which points were hard to come by.
“They really were,” Thomas said. “Both teams were playing just outstanding defense. Their man-to-man defense, and I thought, for the most part, our zone was pretty tough tonight. It was a defensive battle. Then on the boards, if you wanted a rebound, boy, you better go get it.”
Junior Jonathan Kirkley was the lone Dillon player in double figures scoring. He tossed in 15 points. Truman scored eight points, while Graham and junior Connor Curnow each scored five. Fitzgerald tossed in five.
Reiser, sophomore Eli Nourse and junior Callahan Hoffman also contributed to the Dillon victory.
Colton Graham’s 15 points led Columbia Falls, which will open State at 9 a.m. Thursday against Lewistown. Xavier Fisher scored nine points, Jarrett Wilson tossed in six, and Trevor Lake netted two. Graham also pulled down nine rebounds. Wilson added eight as the Pirates won the battle of the boards 27-17.
As he readies to lead his team back to the State tournament, Thomas pointed out that the undefeated road was not an easy one for the Beavers.
“It’s just hard work, game by game,” the coach said. “We had a few where we really just rocked and rolled pretty good and got some things going. Once you get into the meat of stuff, it’s been a challenge. They’ve been able to find a way to win. That’s what it’s all about.”