Falcons top West in AA boys’ title game

Billings Skyview swept to the championship Saturday night, the Falcons’ first in boys’ basketball as the Class AA tournament finished at the Butte Civic Center. A crowd of about 5,000 attended the championship game.
The game marked Skyview’s first-ever appearance in the state championship game and the Falcons were tested by a very good Billings West team in a physical, intensely competitive contest before winning 62-56.
Billings West was hunting its 10th state championship and has played so many times for it in its history the title tilt almost seemed a part of the schedule. The loss, though, was West’s third in three games this year against Skyview in their intercity rivalry.
The Falcons were led by 6-foot-4 senior Kendal Manuel, a Team Mozambique invitee, with 26 points, 17 rebounds and heady court leadership. Manuel’s father, former Rocky Mountain College player Paulo Manuel, lives in Mozambique.
Ray Quan Evans, a nifty 6-1 sophomore guard, had 13 points and eight rebounds, and Montana Tech 6-7 recruit Nolan McHugh put in 11 points.
The Golden Bears never led and Skyview’s widest advantage was by 10 points, but not until late in the game when West was forced to put the Falcons on the free throw line.
The Falcons clinched the title by making nine of 10 foul shots in the last minute after having mixed success at the line in opening what had been a one-point lead. West had rallied to within 43-42 of Skyview on two Kameron Rauch free throws with 4 minutes, 48 seconds on the clock Manuel then performed an acrobatic driving layup and followed with an alley-oop play from Travan Strong that brought a huge roar from the crowd and caused Billings West coach Kelly Darragh to call a timeout. The score was 49-44 with 3:33 to go.
After play resumed Golden Bear Braydon Deming was called for a charge taken by McHugh, and it was booed loudly by the Billings West backers.
Manuel, who won’t turn 18 until September and is headed for prep school next year before going on to a likely Division I hoops career, then netted a free throw before the Golden Bears finally got back on the scoreboard after a two-minute lapse as 6-8 Rocky Mountain recruit Dan Betcher muscled in a shot from under the hoop.
The teams traded free throws and McHugh tallied on a fast break from Evans for a 53-47 Skyview advantage going into the last minute. Rauch was then called for an intentional foul on Strong, who drove to the hoop and the Montana State football signee made both foul shots.
West failed to score on its possession and had to put Strong on the line again as Jayson Leinwand was called for the foul. Again, Strong canned both freebies and the Falcons had their biggest lead, 10 points, 57-47.
Trevor Spoja hit a tough shot from behind the basket and nearly the baseline for the Golden Bears before teammate Reece Nielsen fouled Manuel, who downed two more free throws.
Spoja scored on the drive and the West defense forced the Falcons into a bad pass, causing a turnover. Spoja was fouled by Evans while casting off a 3-point basket attempt. He went to the foul line and caged all three shots.
Skyview led 59-54 with 28 seconds left.
Betcher then fouled Manuel, who put in two more foul shots. Spoja missed a shot with 18 seconds to go and McHugh snared the rebound, and was fouled by Montana recruit Jared Samuelson as tempers surfaced, but didn’t flare. Refs stepped in and kept the peace.
McHugh missed his first freebie, but sank his second. The outcome had been decided and the 62-56 score became final when Samuelson grabbed an offensive rebound and put it in the hoop four seconds before the buzzer.
Skyview scored first in the game when Evans drove the key and looped a shot high off the backboard over defenders’ reaches. The Falcons were up by 12-9 after one quarter and the Golden Bears gained their only tie when Deming connected on a 3-point shot 24 seconds into the second period.
McHugh and Manuel responded with back-to-back 3-pointers for an 18-12 Falcon advantage and Skyview never trailed again. Manuel’s long 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer made it a 31-26 difference at intermission.
The Falcons completed a 21-3 season with the championship game victory.
Betcher finished with 16 points and Spoja with 12 to pace Billings West, which ended the season at 20-4. Spoja also grabbed eight rebounds.

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