Bulldog boys punch ticket with comeback win

Bulldog boys punch ticket with comeback win
Butte High's Billy Kelly gets off a contested shot over Kalispell Flathead's Evan VandenBosch Thursday at the Richardson Gym. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bill Foley

If the Bulldogs were nervous when facing a 12-point deficit Thursday night, they certain did not show it.

Butte High’s boys’ basketball team battled back like a ball of fire, outscoring Kalispell Flathead 59-39 over the final three quarters for a 65-55 Western AA playoff victory at a noisy Richardson Gym.

The win sends the Bulldogs to the Class AA State tournament next week in Great Falls. Butte High will open the tournament at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Four Seasons Arena.

“We’re a team that is always ready to fight back and play to win,” said Butte High senior Billy “The Kid” Kelly, one of three Bulldogs to score in double figures.

Butte High will play in the State tournament in consecutive years for the first time since the 2007 team qualified for the fourth straight season. The home playoff win was the first since the Bulldogs ended a 14-year State tournament draught with a win over Missoula Hellgate at the Butte Civic Center in 2004.

The Bulldogs qualified in the regular season for the state tournaments the next three seasons. They won a playoff game at Bozeman in 2013, and the Bulldogs advanced out of the Western AA Divisional in Missoula last year.

The Class AA went back to the playoffs this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early on Thursday, it looked like the Bulldogs might be missing the tournament for the seventh time in eight years. It did not, however, look that way through the eyes of the Bulldogs.

The home team did not feel that way at all.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Bulldog senior Jake Olson, who scored all of his game-high 22 points over the final three quarters. “I like was, ‘We’re down 12, but we’re going to come back and win it.’”

Butte High second-year head coach Matt Luedtke said his confidence level was just as high after Butte High fell behind 18-6 on a put back by Gabe Adams with 6 minutes, 40 seconds left in the second quarter.

“There are four quarters, and you can’t panic. I don’t think our guys did. It just took us a little bit,” Luedtke said. “It was a pretty awesome crowd, and the atmosphere was great. I think the moment was really, really big, and some of the kids sunk that in a little too long.

“Once we got going, we came back with a vengeance there. We did everything we needed to do to win, and that’s the bottom line.”

The comeback started when fearless junior Kenley Leary took a pass form Kelly and buried a 3-pointer with 5:37 on the clock.

That started an 21-6 run that ignited the limited, but very enthusiastic Bulldog crowd. Senior Cael Stenson capped that run with a 3-poitner to tie the game at 24 just 47 seconds before halftime.

Stenson ran down court holding up three fingers to the Bulldog crowd.

After a free throw from Zach Merrifield, Olson scored inside to put Butte High on top 27-24. The game was tied at 27 at the half after Flathead’s Joston Cripe hit three of four free throws during a crazy, back-and-forth final sequence.

Cripe, who joined teammate Hunter Hickey with a team-leading 14 points, gave the Braves one last lead to start the third quarter.

Olson and Kelly scored back-to-back buckets to put the Bulldogs on top for good at 31-29. Then Leary followed with a 3-pointer.

“He made some great plays,” Luedtke said of Leary. “He does some great things when he plays within himself.”

The Leary three only put the Bulldogs up five. Somehow, it seemed like a much, much bigger lead than that.

Butte High led 43-38 after three quarters, and Butte High opened the fourth with its foot on the gas pedal.

Leary sank a 3-pointer from the corner then scored on a fancy reverse layup on breakaway to make it a 48-38 lead.

Butte High led by 14 points twice —at 55-41 and 40-46 — before time ran out on the Braves, who close the season at 6-9. A third of their losses came at the hands of the Bulldogs.

“The guys closed it out like they were supposed to,” Luedtke said. “It was awesome.”

Adams added 10 points for the Braves. Ethan VandenBosch tossed in nine, and Ezra Epperly, a 6-foot-9 senior who made things difficult for Olson before finding foul trouble, tossed in eight.

Luedtke said Epperly was one of a couple of factors in Olson’s slow start on offense.

“He wasn’t being real patient. He only had had three touches,” Luedtke said. “Coach (Chad) Jonart is our post coach, and he was down there talking to him. He was telling him to be patient and to use your counter move and everything. Jake woke up, man, and we started rolling.”

Kelly scored 14, and Leary finished with 13 for Butte High, which nine players dent the scorebook.

“That’s the fun thing about this team,” Luedtke said. “Everybody who gets in there contributes one way or another. Even Koop. He had limited minutes, but he might have made the play of the game.”

“Koop” is junior Kooper “Jackie Moon” Klobucar, who lit up the crowd with a nice spin mover for a hoop.

Stenson, who helped start the Bulldog offense with some nice passes, scored six points on two 3-pointers. Senior Blake Drakos scored five points, Klobucar finished with the two, and Merrifield and sophomores Cameron Gurnsey and Jace Stenson finished with one.

Butte High played without junior Mikey O’Dell, who sat out with an injury.

The win sends Butte High to State at 8-7. It is also the second big victory for Butte High at home in a span of seven days. The Bulldogs went wire-to-wire for an upset win over previously unbeaten Missoula Sentinel last Friday.

“We got it together,” Kelly said of the Bulldogs, who lost three straight road games before beating the mighty Spartans. “We believe in one another. We’ve been playing together since we were little kids, so it feels good to go with this team.

“It feels nice to be part of it, with coach Luedtke, especially,” Kelly added of going to State. “We knew we could do it, but just to do it feels a lot better.”

Kelly suffered a shoulder injury in last year’s divisional tournament. In addition to taking away his senior football season, it robbed him of playing State.

“I’m excited. It will be like my first time,” Kelly said. “We’re excited to go. It should be fun.”

Olson said the Bulldogs will enter the tournament as an experienced and confident team.

“We know what a state tournament is like,” Olson said. “We all experienced at least once, so I think we’re going to go there and get some wins.”

KALISPELL FLATHEAD (6-9) — Hunter Hickey 3 7-8 14, Ethan VandenBosch 3 2-3 9, Gabe Adams 5 0-0 10, Ezra Epperly 2 4-5 8, Joston Cripe 2 8-11 14, Luca Zoeller 0 0-0 0, Gavin Chauinard 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 21-27 55.
BUTTE HIGH (8-7) — Blake Drakos 1 3-4 5, Zach Merrifield 0 1-2 1, Cael Stenson 2 0-1 6, Billy Kelly 4 5-8 14, Jake Olson 9 4-7 22, Cameron Gurnsey 0 1-2 1, Kenley Leary 5 0-0 13, Jace Stenson 0 1-2 1, Kooper Klobucar 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 25-16 65.
Flathead                     16        11        11        17 — 55
Butte                             6        21        16        22 — 65

3-point goals — Flathead 4 (Cripe 2, Huckey, VandenBosch), Butte 6 (Leary 3, C. Stenson 2, Kelly). Fouls — Flathead 22, Butte 22. Fouled out — VandenBosch, Adams, Merrifield. Technicals — none.

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