By Derek Hendrickson
HAMILTON — The Butte Central Lady Maroons will play for the Class A State Championship Saturday night after holding on to beat the Billings Central Lady Rams 52-47 in the first semifinal game Friday evening.
The Lady Maroons built their lead up to 17 points at 37-20 late in the third and went to the fourh up 13.
At that point Butte Central got away from what was working and tried to take the air out of the ball a bit too early.
Lady Maroon Head Coach Meg Murphy took responsibility for that after the game, saying “that’s my fault, I told them the clock is our friend right now, when you’re up like that but they’re so young you just got to let them continue to play. Their youth showed a little in the last couple of minutes but they did hit their free throws. I can’t say enough about that group of kids, they played their butts off.”
The Lady Rams went on a 19-4 surge that had the large Maroon crowd more than a little antsy when Natalie Ruegsegger scored to make it 43-39 with just over 2 minutes remaining.
The Lady Maroons lead was just big enough to force Billings Central out of their methodical game plan of trying to get the ball in the post and playing tough half-court defense.
Butte Central had few problems with the Lady Rams pressure defense down the stretch and the Lady Maroons were able to connect on 7 of 12 free throws as well as a Ryan Trudnowski put back on one of the misfires to advance to their first title game since 2012 when they lost to Billings Central. The Lady Maroons hoisted the trophy the year before with a team featuring 3 older sisters to players who are this year’s roster.
To pinpoint a specific player of the game would be a difficult task as 5 different Lady Maroons scored points.
Freshman Kloie Thatcher led Butte Central with 13 points and hit all 3 of their successful three-point attempts.
“Offensively I knew I needed to knock down some shots especially from the outside as I wasn’t doing much inside,” Thatcher said about her clutch shooting.
Emily St. John was next with 12 points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal.
St. John was asked about the lead getting chipped away and said “we really just came together as a team, we were a little nervous but we knew we had to pick it back up.”
Ryan Trudnowski had 10, hit all 4 of her shots from the field, pulled down 5 boards, 4 on the offensive end, and also had an assist.
Trudnowski spoke about being in the right place at the right time so often on the glass. “I’m just happy I could just go right back up with it,” she said. “Even though they were missed shots it still turned out all right.”
Mollie Peoples scored nine, including a perfect 5 of 5 from the line, three rebounds and dished out two assists.
Peoples talked about getting away from what was working and what happened to get the Lady Maroons back on track.
“I thought we needed to focus on what we do best,” she said. “Playing as a team moving the ball and working together.”
Sierra Pica put in eight points, had a team high seven boards and had one assist, steal and blocked shot to round out her all-around contribution.
Butte Central dominated the boards 32-17 and shot 20 more free throws than the Lady Rams, but somehow they couldn’t put the game away until the final minute.
Ruegsegger led everyone with 16 points and was joined in double digits by Mariah Wittman’s 10.
The first quarter was highly competitive as both teams looked to gain an edge.
Wittman stole a pass at the top of the key and went coast to coast to make it 2-0 early.
The Lady Maroons first lead came at 4-3 on a St. John drive. Ruegsegger hit a 3 to give Billings Central their largest and last lead of the game at 9-6.
The Lady Maroons ripped off seven straight points, five by Thatcher, and led 13-11 after one.
The second quarter was all Butte Central. Wittman picked up her third foul at the 5:46 mark, all on offensive charges that were taken by different Lady Maroons.
“I thought what was huge was that we took quite a few charges in the first quarter, took them out of their game a little bit,” Murphy said. “They are use to penetrating hard and getting to the basket. They are so quick I beg (our girls) to take charges all the time and you won’t believe it, but the last two weeks of the season was the first time they took a charge so that’s huge for these kids and now they understand it.”
With their best ball handler on the bench Butte Central was able to disrupt every offensive possession and held the Lady Rams to just 4 points in the frame.
Thatcher was asked about her role in keeping the Lady Rams out of the paint. “Defensively I knew it was my job to get tips, to get steals and not get beat to the hole because we can’t let them in our house and let them take out TV, our couch or anything like that,” she said.
Butte Central definitely did a great job at protecting their valuables through the first 16 minutes. They held the Lady Rams to just 26 percent shooting.
The Lady Maroons poured in the last 6 points of the quarter to make it 25-15 at the break. Trudnowski gave Butte Central an extra blast of momentum when she received an inbounds pass with under 5 seconds to go and powered in a lay-up.
Butte Central seemed primed to run away with this one and never look back after Peoples hit a baseline jumper and Thatcher drained a three in quick succession to make it 37-20.
Trudnowski picked up her 4th foul with 42 ticks left in the 3rd and that play appeared to turn the tide enough to allow the Lady Rams to make a game of it.
“I was just frustrated for fouling so many times in a row,” Trudnowski said as she picked up 3 fouls in the third quarter alone.
Billings Central will attempt to bounce back tomorrow morning when they take on Frenchtown with a third place trophy still up for grabs.
The Lady Maroons will play against Hamilton, who they have battled 3 times already this season.
Hamilton won twice on their homecourt, 59-48 in the regular season and 66-58 last Friday in the divisional semifinal.
The Lady Maroons won 62-50 at the MAC in February. Future Lady Griz basketball and softball signee Taylor Goligoski led the Lady Broncs in all 3 games, including 2 performances with 20 or more points.
Now the roster that doesn’t feature a senior on it will have a chance to play for a state championship.
While the team certainly has shown promise throughout the season few would have thought this was possible.
Murphy spoke about her team growing up and getting themselves to this point. “The very first day of the season I told them if you develop and you mature you have a shot to get to that state tournament and we’ll just let the cards lay where they go. I think I and my coaches might be the only people who believed that and in the last week the kids started to believe it.”
The improbable run started with two must-win games last Saturday plus a little help from the Lady Broncs, who overcame a 12 point halftime deficit to allow the Lady Maroons to challenge Dillon on Monday.
Now the Maroons have knocked off two straight divisional champions, including the top team in the state and will get a chance at a third as well as a little revenge Saturday night.
Murphy talked about the last game of the season. “You get there,” she said, “you don’t know, kids are just funny, now the game is up to them, just go out have fun and let the ball roll where it does and have a little bit of luck anytime you’re in these state tournaments.”
BILLINGS CENTRAL (11-12)
Jullianna Arellano 0-2 1-2 1, Morgan Lucas 3-13 0-0 7, Mariah Wittman 3-6 3-4 10, Skyler Rockwell 2-4 0-0 6, Natalie Ruegsegger 7-11 0-0 16, CeCe Paharik 0-2 0-0 0, Jade Harrison 0-1 1-2 1, Camryn Gunderson 0-0 0-0 0, Ellie Hanser 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 18-44 5-8 47.
BUTTE CENTRAL (18-5)
Mollie Peoples 2-8 5-5 9, Sierra Pica 2-3 4-8 8, Emily St. John 4-9 4-7 12, Kate Ossello 0-1 0-0 0, Ryan Trudnowski 4-4 2-4 10, Kloie Thatcher 4-9 2-2 13, Shawnee Hjelt 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Wahl 0-0 0-0 0, Megan Michelotti 0-1 0-2 0.
Billings Central 11 4 9 23 — 47
Butte Central 13 12 12 15 — 52
3-point goals — Billings 6-18 (Rockewll 2-5, Rueggsegger 2-5, Wittman 1-2, Lucas 1-6), Butte 3-10 (Thatcher 3-6, St. John 0-3, Peoples 0-1). Assists — Billings 11 (Lucas 3, Wittman 3), Butte 2 (Pica, St. John). Steals — Billings 6 (Luicas 2, Rockwell 2), Butte 5 (Peoples 2). Blocks — Billings 3 (Ruegsegger 2, Hanser), Butte 1 (Pica). Turnovers — Billings 12, Butte 15. Fouls — Billings 23, Butte 10. Fouled out — Arellano. Technicals — none. 4 comments