By Bill Foley
GREAT FALLS — Just when it seemed nothing could go wrong for the Butte Central girls’ basketball team, suddenly nothing could go right.
The Maroons saw Hamilton score 18 straight points in the second half, and the Broncs knocked off the Maroons 52-44 Saturday morning in a loser-out game of the Class A State tournament at the Four Seasons Arena. (Stats)
The Hamilton run came after Butte Central scored 15 straight in the first half. BC led 20-13 at halftime, and BC held a 25-16 advantage when Kloie Thatcher sank a 3-pointer with 6 minutes, 30 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Broncs scored the next 18 points, and the Maroons went more than a full quarter without scoring.
“They were a little tired, but they came out strong and hit some shots,” BC coach Meg Murphy said. “I think we just lost our legs in the second half.
“I saw them at halftime trying to shoot, and they were all short. They had a tough time getting their legs under them.”
The game started about 13 hours after the Maroons fell to Hardin in the semifinals.
Murphy’s Maroons, though, still came out strong in their quest to bring home a trophy from state for the fourth straight year.
“They never quit,” Murphy said. “They gave everything that I asked them to give this morning.”
While the Broncs (22-7) advance to the third-place game to take on Columbia Falls, BC closes the season at 20-7 and out of luck.
The week started with Thatcher battling a stomach virus. Fellow senior Megan Michelotti was sick for the semifinal loss, and it just seemed like the Maroons couldn’t get a bounce to go their way.
“You’ve got to have some luck. I said that at the beginning,” Murphy said. “It seemed like everything went backward for us at times.”
Hamilton star Cariann Kunkel, who scored a game-high 24 points, scored Hamilton’s first six points, and the Broncs built a 9-2 lead.
Then, the Maroons took off. Led by junior guard Tricia “Goose” Joyce, the Maroons scored 15 straight points to turn that deficit into a 17-9 advantage.
During that span, Joyce, hit a long 2-point jumper and a pair of 3-pointers.
The Maroons took a 20-13 lead into halftime after holding the Broncs scoreless for more than 8 minutes.
The first minute and a half of the third quarter looked promising for the Maroons. Then to roof fell in.
Hamilton’s Kara Nye bounced in a 3-ponter to cut the lead to 25-13 with 3:25 left in the third. The next time down court Nye swished a three to give the Broncs the lead for good at 26-25.
By the time the Hamilton run ended, the Broncs led 34-25 early in the fourth quarter.
Thatcher hit a 3-pointer to stop the bleeding, and the Maroons, of course, fought their way back into the game.
Four free throws from Thatcher, two from Olivia Bolton and a 3-pointer from Joyce pulled the Maroons to within 40-37 with 2:38 left.
Hamilton, though, put the game away from the free throw line, hitting 10 of 12 freebies down the stretch.
“Hamilton is a good team,” Murphy said. “You can’t take anything away from them.”
Tristan Searle added 15 points for the Broncs, and Nye tossed in eight.
Thatcher, a future Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bear, cored 17 points to lead the Maroons. She also pulled down 10 rebounds and dished out four assists.
Joyce, who is generously listed at 5-foot-3 on the BC roster, tossed in 11 points. She impressed the Broncs enough that on several occasions Hamilton coach Mark Albert yelled “Who’s got Tricia?” during BC possessions.
“She might be all of 5 foot, but she’s going to be a guard to be reckoned with,” Murphy said. “She’s quick, she’s athletic.”
The Maroons got seven from Megan Michelotti, who got over the illness but was still far from 100 percent, five from Olivia Bolton, three from Emma Keeley and one from Cassidy Strizic. Allyson Mueller and Kailee Murphy also contributed for BC.
The 20-win season is a tough one for coach Murphy to let go. She often referred to this team as “special,” and said the Maroons are surely going to miss their four seniors — Thatcher, Michelotti, Bolton and Kailee Murphy.
“I’m just so proud of our seniors,” the coach said. “They just left everything out on the floor.”
The Maroons ended the season with their eighth state tournament appearance in nine seasons. They made it to Saturday in seven of those tournaments.
This year, coach Murphy said her team probably caught a few people by surprise.
“Nobody expected us to be at the state tournament, especially if they saw us at the beginning of the year,” Murphy said. “They just got better every week, and that’s all you can ask for.”