By Bruce Sayler
Constant weekly improvement culminated the regular season in a win for the Butte High boys’ basketball team Friday night.
The Bulldogs dropped Helena Capital 69-58 in the Ross J. Richardson Memorial Gym at Butte High School, launching them some momentum in storage toward the Western AA tournament next Thursday through Saturday at Flathead High School in Kalispell.
“It was Senior Night, out last night to play in Ross J. Richardson Memorial Gym,” said Jace Stenson, one of four senior members of the team honored with two managers and a cheerleader and their families in pregame recognition. “None of the seniors were taking it for granted. We came out to show what we could do in our last night here, our last game. And the younger kids played for us seniors, and I can’t be more appreciative of that.”Stenson certainly did his part with 25 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal.
The other senior players honored were Cameron Gurnsey, Jonas Sherman and Casey Merrifield. Managers D.J. Newgard and Tiana Wetzel, and cheerleader Hannah Haberman were the other honorees.
“Capital is a great team,” Stenson said about an opponent packed with players Butte High has competed hard with in several sports in recent times. “Right now is the perfect time for us to peak, divisionals and State now being the only part left of the season.”
The Bulldogs started fast and built an 11-6 lead in the early going behind fire provided by freshman Hudson Luedtke. He tallied seven of his 11 points in the first quarter. The Bruins, though, are the defending Class AA state champions and many members of the team recently helped win Capital the football crown as well. They were not to be beaten so easily or quickly.
A lift from 6-foot-5 senior Luke Dowdy off the bench sent the Bruins to a 17-16 edge with Capital’s 9-3 run over a 3 ½-minute span. The Bulldogs’ early lead was erased. They recovered in time to hold a 19-18 advantage after two free throws by Stenson and one by Gurnsey.
“We always try to play our best at the end of the year,” Butte High head coach Matt Luedtke, father of the freshman star, said. “Obviously, this team plays better at home than on the road. But, as a team, I felt we had our best game of the year, tonight. If we can hang onto that, we will play well at divisionals and I feel we can be playing here (in Butte) at the state tournament in the Civic Center.”
The Class AA state tournament is set for March 9-11 in the Civic Center. The top four teams from each of Class AA’s two divisional tournaments will comprise the field.
“Capital is a great team and Guy (Almquist) does such a good job with that program,” coach Luedtke said. “Tonight was my first win against them. They have good kids and they are so used to winning, and we’re still building and trying to figure out how to win basketball games.”
A second-quarter stretch of almost five minutes saw the Bulldogs outscore the Bruins 11-2 on the way to a 36-27 halftime advantage. Stenson launched the run with two drives for buckets, followed by a pair of made foul shots. Sherman took a pass from Bo Demarais to the hoop and Dylan “Bobby” Bache came off the bench to cap the spree with a 3-point basket.
Hudson Luedtke’s 3-pointer from near midcourt with a defender crowding in his face accompanied the Bulldogs off the court amid a roar from the season’s biggest fan turnout to the locker room at halftime.
The gained momentum was still a factor when Butte High started the second half on back-to-back Stenson 3-pointers. Merrifield chained a third trey in the half-opening 9-0 Bulldog run. The gap was 45-27.
The Bulldogs maintained their distance, adding a fourth 3-pointer of the period on a Gurnsey launch, and took a 54-36 cushion into the last frame.
Capital rallied some in the fourth quarter as Hayden Opitz and Butte-rooted Joey Michelotti, a Montana Tech football signee, led a 22-point period for the Bruins. Charity tosses by Merrifield, Bache and Stenson in the final minute clinched the Butte High win.
“The third quarter was huge,” coach Luedtke said. “We came in and talked in the locker room at halftime about continuing to go hard and put the pedal to the metal. We put that challenge to the boys and I was really proud of them.”
Stenson was joined in Bulldog double figures by Gurnsey with 15 points and Luedtke with his 11. Stenson, too, is Montana Tech-football bound like Michelotti and his cousin, Nick, another Butte-rooted standout. The Michelottis combined for 22 Bruins points, Joey coming off the bench for a game-high 12. Jack Drynan, also a reserve, joined Nick Michelotti with 10 points each.
“State being at home really makes it something we want to push for,” Stenson said. “Senior year, in Butte, it is a lifetime thing.
“We just came out and played aggressive basketball. We came out a little slow and they stayed with us and then we picked it up. We played hard.”
Hudson Luedtke dished six assists and had three assists. Bache finished with eight points, Merrifield had four, and Sherman and Tocher Lee had three each. Demarois had two rebounds to go with his assist. Cayde Stajcar also played.
Butte High finished the regular season with a 9-9 record, including an 8-6 conference mark. Capital wound up 11-7 and 8-6.
HELENA CAPITAL (11-7, 8-6) – Hayden Opitz 4-9 0-3 8, Nick Michelotti 5-11 0-0 10, Henry Gross 2-3 0-1 4, Hudsen Grovom 1-6 0-0 3, Tyler Kovick 1-3 2-4 4, Joey Michelotti 3-10 4-6 12, Luke Dowdy 3-4 1-4 7, Jack Drynan 4-4 2-3 10, Austin Buehler 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-51 9-21 58.
BUTTE HIGH (9-9, 8-6) – Jace Stenson 5-10 12-13 25, Cameron Gurnsey 6-10 1-2 15, Jonas Sherman 1-4 1-2 3, Casey Merrifield 1-3 1-3 4, Hudson Luedtke 4-11 2-3 11, Dylan Bache 3-3 1-2 8, Tocher Lee 1-5 0-0 3, Bo Demarois 0-0 0-1 0, Cayde Stajcar 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-47 18-26 69.
Capital 17 10 9 22 – 58
Butte High 19 17 18 15 – 69
3-point goals – Capital 3-14 (N. Michelotti 0-4, Grovom 1-4, Kovick 0-1, J. Michelotti 2-5), Butte 9-19 (Stenson 3-4, Gurnsey 2-4, Merrifield 1-3, Luedtke 1-3, Bache 1-1, Lee 1-4). Fouled out – Gurnsey. Total fouls – Capital 25, Butte 21. Technical – Gurnsey. Rebounds – Capital 37 (Dowdy 7), Butte 30 (Stenson 6). Blocks – Capital 2 (J. Michelotti 2), Butte 0. Assists – Capital 10 (Gross 2, Opitz 2), Butte 10 (Luedtke 6, Stenson 2). Steals – Capital 4 (Grovom 1, J. Michelotti 1, Gross 1, N. Michelotti 1), Butte 6 (Luedtke 3, Gurnsey 1, Sherman 1, Stenson 1). Turnovers – Capital 11, Butte 8.
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