By Derek Hendrickson
GREAT FALLS — The Laurel Locomotives battled back to take home the third place trophy from the Class A State Tournament with a 47-40 win over a very game Belgrade Panther team.
The Locomotives withstood some early hot shooting by the Panthers and overcame a 9 point deficit early in the second quarter.
Evan Jones scored 16 points for the Locomotives after his 24 point effort earlier this morning. Fellow senior Taylor Maida finished his career with an 11 point effort and junior Zac Allen had 10 with 8 rebounds to help Laurel head home with some hardware.
The Panthers got 16 points from senior Trevor Mahn to go with 7 boards. Shiloh Christopher also played in his final game for Belgrade and netted 13 points. Junior Koby Ruff had possibly the best effort by a pure point guard in the tournament to this point, tallying 10 assists and six rebounds with only two turnovers.
Unfortunately for Belgrade Ruff was the only player who seemed able to hold on to the ball, as the Panthers coughed up 21 turnovers and shot only 31.6% in the second half as they watched their lead and the game slip away. Belgrade, the champions of the Central A finished the year with a 17-8 record.
The Locomotive defense completely clamped down on Belgrade in the second half, allowing only 15 points, while Laurel was able to score 24 and finish their season with a stellar 21-3 record but will likely think about what could have been after not playing their best in the semifinals against Columbia Falls.
Laurel took their first lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter when Jones connected on a mid-range jump shot, making the score 30-29. They continued to add to the lead, pushing the advantage to 36-31 entering the fourth.
Belgrade continued to fight, cutting the lead to three twice in the fourth quarter, the last time at 40-37 with 3:33 to go, but they couldn’t connect on any of their field goals until a last second three and Laurel built the final margin from the free throw line.
The first half was well played with Belgrade starting with some hot shooting and then Laurel working long possessions to get inside looks to come back in the second.
The Panthers hit their first 3 attempts behind the arc, 2 by Mahn and one by Christopher to go up 9-5. Both teams were able to match the other’s scoring the rest of the quarter and Belgrade led 17-13 after one.
Mahn continued his hot shooting, putting up 5 quick points in the second to stretch the lead to 9. The Locomotives slowed the pace and went on an 8-0 run that took up most of the period and forced a Panther timeout. Out of the break Mahn drilled his third three of the half and Maida hit a runner to send it to the locker room 25-23 Belgrade.
Overall the Panthers hit on 53.3 percent from the field in the first half compared to only 36.4% for Laurel but the Locomotives forced 8 turnovers to help them attempt 7 more shots. Belgrade was 5 of 8 from three in the first half.
With 21 seconds to go both coaches took advantage of a break to sub out the senior stars, for Belgrade Christopher and Mahn shared an emotional moment with Coach Mike Deming while Coach Pat Hansen had a chance to have one final hug from Jones, Maida and Meccage.