By Bill Foley
MISSOULA — If there is such a thing as a momentum-building loss, we might have seen it Thursday night at the Sentinel Gym.
Butte High’s girls’ basketball team did not shock the state when the Bulldogs took on host Missoula Sentinel in the opening round of the Western AA Divisional tournament. The Bulldogs, though, showed themselves and their fans that they can compete.
“Our kids are excited to play tomorrow,” Bulldog coach Maury Cook said. “They’re already talking about what they can do this weekend. Our goal is to get to state, and it’s there.”
Butte High will play a loser-out game against Kalispell Flathead at 1:30 p.m. Friday. (Bracket)
The loss was the sixth straight for the Bulldogs, but it was clearly the best they have played in some time. Cook said it was his team’s best performance since its last win, a 51-46 Feb. 4 home win over Helena High.
“Over the last three or four weeks, this is probably the best we’ve played,” Cook said.
The 14-point loss, which was a single-digit deficit much of the second half, comes five nights after Butte High lost by 36 points (65-29) to the same team on the same floor.
“I’m really proud of them. That’s a tough team,” Cook said. “That’s the way we have to step out on the floor every night. It’s got to be that kind of energy every night.”
In the end, the loaded Spartans were just too much.
Cousins Challis Westwater and Lexi Deden combined to score 41 points to lead the Spartans, who improved to 15-4 on the season.
Westwater, a 6-foot-2 junior, scored 22 points, hitting 8 of 10 shots from the free throw line. Deden, a 6-1 senior and future Montana State Bobcat, tossed in 19 points.
“Defensively, we did a great job,” Cook said. “Obviously, the big girls, they got their points. They did a great job shutting down the rest of them.”
Butte High led early, taking a 3-2 advantage when Trisha Ericson took a Grace McGrath pass and sank a 3-pointer. Ericson pumped her fist as she ran down the court after the trey.
Butte High led 5-4 after Makenna Carpenter drove for a hoop, and the Bulldogs made it 6-4 when MacKenzie Tutty hit one of two free throws.
Sentinel, though, took the lead for good with a 14-2 run to close out the first quarter for an 18-8 lead.
The Spartans took a 37-26 advantage into halftime.
Things started to get interesting in the third quarter. Really interesting.
Carpenter scored off a McGrath assist to start a 7-2 run. Butte High pulled within 39-33 when Carpenter drained a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
Another Carpenter trey, this time off a Kodie Hoagland pass, cut the lead to 44-38 with 1:35 left in the frame.
Butte High’s bench — and fan base — was erupting over and over as the pesky Bulldogs pushed the Spartans.
Six points, though, was as close as Butte High got.
Deden sank two free throws to make it a 46-38 lead going into the final frame.
Sentinel killed Butte’s upset hopes by starting the fourth quarter with seven straight points.
Jayden Salisbury drove for a hoop, and Westwater, the daughter of head coach Karen Deden, added a bucket before grabbing an offensive rebound and turning a 3-point play.
In all, the Spartans started the fourth with a 13-5 run for a 59-43 advantage.
Butte High, though did not go out quietly, fighting until the very end.
Salisbury and Megan Hamilton each scored eight points for Sentinel, which advances to a semifinal showdown with Missoula Hellgate.
Carpenter hit three 3-pointers total and scored 13 points to lead Butte High, which saw nine different player score points.
Tutty finished with 11 points and five rebounds, while Haley Herron battled for nine points before fouling out.
The Bulldogs also got five points from Brooke McGrath, three from Ericson and Tylar Clary, two from Hoagland, McCaul McCarthy and Maddy Skeel.
Maddie Rhodes and Ashley Olson also played for the Bulldogs (7-12).
The winner of Friday’s loser-out game with Flathead goes to a loser-out game at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Missoula Hellgate. The winner of that game goes to the third-place game and the Class AA State tournament next week in Bozeman.
Even though they lost on Thursday, the Bulldogs are heading to the Flathead game flying high.
“Our kids have just got to come out and get after the next one,” Cook said.
The Braves and Bulldogs split the regular-season series. Butte won 67-39 Jan. 17 in Kalispell, while Flathead won 56-52 Feb. 14 in Butte.