By Bill Foley
GREAT FALLS — High school basketball games are 32 minutes long.
If they were 33, Butte Central fans just might be talking about a comeback for the ages for decades to come.
The Maroons, though, ran out of time Friday night, falling 79-73 to defending champion Hardin in the semifinals of the Class A State boys’ basketball tournament at the Four Seasons Arena. (Stats)
“I’m super proud of our guys for putting ourselves in position to win that,” Butte Central coach Brodie Kelly said of the game in which BC trailed by 17 points entering the fourth quarter. “A couple more possessions, and we’re right there. If you add another minute to that game, I feel like we’re right there.”
As it turned out, Hardin was just too hot to start the game.
The Bulldogs shot 60.7 percent in the first half, forcing the Maroons to play from behind most of the game.
“They hit some remarkable shots, quick shots, transition shots, off-balanced shots,” Kelly said. “They’ve got some guys with tremendous skill.”
The points didn’t come from the expected source, either.
With Butte Central senior Cade Holter keeping the great Famous Lefthand in check, fellow junior Trae Hugs stepped up in a big, big way.
The 6-foot-3 Hugs scored 32 points to lead Hardin (21-2) back to the championship game, which tips off at 8 p.m. Saturday. He hit on 8 of 12 shots from the field and 15 of 18 free throw attempts.
Junior Kidd Littlelight sored 13 points, while Lefthand scored 11 on 3-for-11 shooting before leaving the game with a leg injury with 2 minutes, 11 seconds left in the game.
Cayden Redfield and Peyton Gooduck each scored nine points for Hardin.
Central led just once, and that came when Matt Simkins scored on a putback for a 2-0 advantage. The red-hot Bulldogs led 22-11 after the first quarter and 43-29 at the half.
Things looked really dire for the Maroons when Lefthand sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Bulldogs into the fourth quarter with a 61-44 lead.
“I didn’t know how long they were going to sustain it,” Kelly said of Hardin’s hot shooting. “I felt like were going to have a chance in hat second half. I started to doubt that at the end of the third quarter.”
Central still trailed 69-54 when Hugs sank two free throws with 4:21 to play.
Trevor Neumann hit two free throws, and Holter followed with a bucket that started BC’s run. When Neumann scored off a nice pass from Simkins with 1:29 on the clock, Central trailed 72-70.
“We went to a zone press to try to up the tempo more,” Kelly said. “They gave us some opportunities in that second half because they kept running guys at the ball and giving us some transition open-court opportunities. Guys started knocking them down and shooting with confidence and making plays, and momentum was building.”
Hardin tacked on a point when Andrew House hit one of two free throws with 1:45 left.
Neumann got off a 3-pointer from the corner that rattled in and out on the next possession. From there, the Bulldogs hit just enough free throws to hold on. They also missed enough to make it interesting.
Braden Harrington hit a long ball to cut the lead to 76-73 to give BC one last hope with 15 seconds left. Hugs, though, crushed those hopes by hitting three of fourth free tosses in the final 10 seconds.
Harrington scored 15 points to lead four Maroons in double figures in the loss.
The junior also gave fans a scare in the final seconds. As time expired, Harrington collided with a Browning player. He remained motionless on the floor during the postgame handshake before leaving the court with assistance.
Harrington, though, appeared to be OK physically after the game.
Dylan Sestrich scored 12 points for BC, while Matt Simkins and Holter each scored 10. BC got seven from Luke Heaphy, who hit a huge 3-pointer in BC’s fourth quarter run, six from Neumann, five from Gator Yelenich and four from Jared Simkins and Aaron Richards.
The Maroons (20-5) were heartbroken following the loss that sends them to a 10:30 a.m. loser-out game against Livingston at the CMR Fieldhouse.
With two wins, the Maroons will take home the third-place trophy. Clearly, that isn’t the trophy the Maroons were looking for when they left the Mining City.
Still, Kelly praised his players who won 20 games in a season for just the 12th time since 1915.
“I just told the guys, it’s the nature of this game that at the end of this 32 minutes there’s a winner and a loser on the scoreboard,” Kelly said. “But there’s no losers out there. Both teams have nothing but be proud of their effort.
“Neither team was perfect, but the guts and heart that the group in this locker room showed … I thought it was awesome.”