Flathead Braves turn back Bulldog comeback bid

By Bill Foley

Butte High’s boys’ basketball team almost had a comeback for the ages Friday at the Butte Civic Center.

Instead, the Bulldogs head into the holiday break shaking their heads and looking for answers after a 55-51 non-conference loss to Kalispell Flathead.

Butte High came back from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter to tie the game at 45 with 3 minutes, 6 seconds left in the fourth.

While the performance thrilled what was left of the Bulldog crowd — many fans, including the pep band, packed up and left early — it couldn’t mask the overall problems for the Bulldogs, who fell to 1-3 with their second loss this week.

“We just need to start playing to our ability because we’re a lot better than the team we’ve shown the last two games,” Bulldog coach Luke Powers said.

Butte High’s biggest problem was shooting. The Bulldogs started the game cold in falling behind 30-14 by halftime.

Moreover, Butte High really struggled on the freebees. The Bulldogs made just 4 of 24 shots from the free throw line. That includes 1 for 11 from the stripe in the first half.

Powers was perplexed by the 21 percent performance from the “charity stripe.”

“We’re not playing awkward seven-footers that can’t shoot free throws,” Powers said. “We’re playing a bunch of guards who are capable shooters.”

Kalispell had its struggles at the line, too. The Braves hit on just 12 of 24 shots. Flathead, though, made five straight in the final 26.5 seconds to win the game.

“Kudos to Butte and coach Powers for clawing their way back in the game,” Flathead coach Ross Gustafson said. “Once it was tied, our guys dug deep and found a way to win. That’s impress for the younger, more inexperience group that we have.”

For the first 24 minutes, it looked like the Braves (2-2) would be heading home after an easy victory.

Flathead closed out the first half with 12 straight points to take a 30-14 lead into the break.

It was a break in which the Bulldogs fumed as they held a “come to Jesus meeting” in the locker room.

Powers pulled his starters and inserted five mostly junior varsity players — Aidan Lee, Ryan Neil, Zach Merrifield, Ryan Burt and Cael Stenson — to play the final minute and a half.

The coach said he wanted to send his team a message after the Bulldogs had a disappointing performance in Tuesday’s lopsided loss to Helena Capital.

“I think it made them angry, and I think we needed that,” Powers said. “We played with energy early, we just didn’t make shots. Then all of a sudden in the second quarter the energy went right back down and we’re standing around against that 1-3-1.”

Butte High responded to the message from its coach, though the retort didn’t come until the Braves extended the lead to 36-17 midway through the third quarter.

Clay Ferguson, who scored a game-high 17 points despite a struggle from the stripe, hit a jumper, and fellow senior Trevyn Roth buried a 3-poitner to start a Bulldog mini run that cut the lead to 39-26 after three quarters.

With the deficit at 42-29, senior Kale McCarthy hit a 3-pointer that started a 14-1 Bulldog lead that made it a game, cutting the lead to 43-40 with 4:59 left in the game.

Flathead senior guard Anthony Jones responded with a putback to make 45-40.

Another 3-pointer by Roth and a bucket by senior Danny McCloskey off a nice pass from Kash Kelly — one of several highlight-reel assists from the senior guard — tied the game at 45.

Powers said Butte High’s comeback was sparked by defense.

“We’re taking what they give us, and they’re giving us open threes,” the coach said. “Our defense creates some offense, then you hit a couple of threes, and all of a sudden you grab some momentum. We got them on their heels a little bit.”

That momentum looked to turn into a sure Bulldog win. Flathead, though, had another idea.

“When you get a big lead and then you give it up, it is really, really tough to dig in and stop the bleeding so to speak,” Gustafson said.

Stop it, the Braves did.

Gabe Adams scored off a nice inbounds pass from Brett Thompson to put Flathead up for good at 47-45 with 2:07 left

A bucket by Seth Moon and a free throw from Adams extended the lead to 50-45.

Ferguson drove for a bucket with 59 seconds left, pulling Butte to within 50-42. In the middle of an 0-for-5 run from the free throw line by the Braves, Ferguson scored inside to cut the lead to 50-49 with 38.7 seconds on the clock.

Then, the Braves found their free throw stroke. Stephen Bridges hit the second of his two free throws, and Thompson sank two.

After a McCarthy hoop off a Kelly pass, Bridges hit two more to ice the game with 3.2 seconds left.

Adams scored 12 points to lead three Braves in double figures. Bridges and Thompson each scored 10, while Tannen Beyl tossed in nine.

McCloskey scored 11 for the Bulldogs, while Kelly tossed in nine on three 3-pointers. McCarthy finished with seven, Roth scored six, and Tommy Mellott tossed in one to go with some solid defense.

Butte High will take several days off for Christmas before getting back to work for its January schedule. The Bulldogs play at Great Falls Russell on Jan. 5.

Between now and then, Butte High’s boys have some things to figure out.

Powers said one thing that isn’t in question is his team’s heart.

“You can’t question the kids’ character and integrity,” he said. “The good news is no one’s ever won a state championship in December. All our goals are still in front of us. It’s not the end of the world.”

KALISPELL FLATHEAD (2-2) — Tannen Beyl 4 0-0 9, Stephen Bridges 2 4-6 10, Seth Moon 1 0-3 2, Gabe Adams 5 2-5 12, Anthony Jones 2 0-0 4, Brian Wells 0 0-0 0, Blake Counts 0 2-4 2, Brett Thompson 3 2-2 10, Andrew Siderius 2 01 4, Hunter Hickey 0 2-3 2, Cooper Smith 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 12-24 55.
BUTTE HIGH (1-3) — Kash Kelly 3 0-0 9, Tommy Mellott 0 1-3 1, Clay Ferguson 8 1-8 17, Kale McCarthy 3 0-0 7, Trevyn Roth 2 0-0 6, Danny McCloskey 4 3-9 11, Jacob Olson 0 0-2, Zach Merrifield 0 0-2 0, Ryan Neil 0 0-0 0, Cael Stenson 0 0-0 0, ,Aidan Lee 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 5-24 51.
Flathead                     12        18        9          16 — 55
Butte High                  7          7          12        25 — 51

3-point goals — Flathead 5 (Brigers 2, Thompson 2, Beyl), Butte 6 (Kelly 3, Roth 2, McCarthy). Fouls — Flathead 21, Butte 22. Fouled out — Jones, Mellott. Technical — Jones.