By Bill Foley
This all started with the scoreboard at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula showing a final score of 64-17.
Butte Central’s girls’ basketball team was on the short end of that lopsided opener, and BC fans wondered aloud if the Maroons would win any games at all during the 2018-19 campaign.
Oh, what a difference a few months can make.
On Saturday night, Queen’s “We Are The Champions” blared over the Maroon Activities Center loudspeakers as the Maroons celebrated their Southwestern A championship.
The Maroons (9-11), a super-young team with a roster consisting of just 13 players, beat Hamilton 43-40 in the championship game of the Southwestern A District tournament. (Stats)
BC heads to Hamilton next week for the Western A Divisional tournament as a No. 1 seed. (Final bracket)
“I think that’s what everybody thought,” BC senior guard Tricia Joyce said of talk of a winless season following the opening game.
Joyce and the Maroons, though, never cared about what other people thought. Instead, they went to work and put together a rags-to-riches run that is still far from over.
“We’re dedicated to making ourselves better every day and living up to the expectations we had for ourselves rather than what others had for us,” Joyce said.
On Saturday, the Maroons showed Hamilton just how far they have come. The Broncs swept the regular-season series with the Maroons, winning two games by a total of 14 points.
“We knew that team had beat us twice, but we knew we could play with them,” Joyce said. “It just had to come together as a team. Everybody had to contribute, and I think we did that. Just enough.”
Longtime BC coach Meg Murphy admitted to second thoughts about coming back to coach this season on that Dec. 7 day in Missoula.
“My first thought was, ‘What were you thinking continuing to do this. I should have left on a good note,” Murphy said of the 64-17 loss.
Of course, all the coach had to do was look to her roster and see No. 20 to know that she made the right decision.
“Any time you have Tricia Joyce on your team, you know you can get better,” Murphy said of the feisty guard who is generously listed at 5-foot-2 on the roster.
Like she has been so many times, Joyce, a member of BC’s 2016 state championship squad, was the catalyst for the Maroons in the district title game.
Joyce, the 2018 Class A state golf champion, hit a 3-pointer to end the third quarter and one more to start the fourth quarter to light a fire under the Maroons.
Central led 19-15 at halftime, and the Broncs opened the third quarter with a 10-6 run to tie the game. A 3-pointer by Abby Johnson knotted the score with 2 minutes, 8 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Maroons took back the lead for good when Delaney Hasquet and Emma Keeley each hit a pair of free throws.
It was Joyce, though, who stole the thunder.
She sank a 3-ponter with 2 seconds left in the third quarter. Her long ball to start the fourth made it a 35-25 advantage.
Hamilton fought until the end, but the game was never threatened as much as the final score might indicate.
The Broncs outscored BC 8-3 over the final minute to cut the lead to three. The three points all came on Hasquet free throws.
When Kaitlin Dickemore hit a 3-pointer with 3 seconds left, Joyce grabbed the ball under the basket. She didn’t have to inbound it because the Broncs were out of timeouts, and the celebration was on.
“This has probably been one of the most rewarding years for me as a coach just because of how hard these kids work,” Murphy said. “When you only have 13 kids come out, you sometimes question whether or not it’s you or is it the program or is it time to step down. I can’t tell you how proud I of am that these 13 kids bonded together, stuck together and battled each other every day. They got better.
“I can’t even tell you how proud I am.”
Central, which overcame a double-digit deficit in Friday’s semifinal win over Dillon, never trailed by more than two points in the championship game, but the Maroons definitely withstood a few punches from the Broncs.
“They always come back strong,” Murphy said of her girls. “They never quit. They never lay down when they’re down.”
Nine BC players appeared in the championship game. Thatcher, a freshman, came off the bench to score 12 points. She hit two early 3-pointers to get the Maroons started on the right note.
Thatcher hit a three to start BC’s scoring. Then, she fed Joyce for a 3-pointer. BC made it 9-2 when Thatcher got an offensive rebound and threw the ball to Joyce. Then Joyce hit Thatcher for another 3-pointer.
“She comes in and works hard on defense all the time,” Joyce said. “Her boards are huge. She’s just an athlete all around.”
Keeley, a junior, scored seven points, while Hasquet, a sophomore tossed in five. Senior Bella Sorino scored four points, while sophomore Maddie Kump scored one.
Senior Shea Davis and sophomores Amira Bolton and Taylor Harrington also contributed in the win.
Bolton grabbed six rebounds, and Murphy pointed to the defense of the 5-10 Harrington.
“As coaches we talked, and somebody every night has stepped up and done something different,” Murphy said. “Tonight Taylor Harrington came in a did a great job on the big girl (6-foot senior Lauren Ryter), and that made a huge difference for us.”
The other players on Murphy’s Magnificent 13 are sophomore Avery Kelly and freshmen Payton Hartwick, Brenna Foley and Rileigh McGree.
Murphy is assisted by Melissa Swanson, Quinn Peoples, Brynne Kambich and Hattie Thatcher.
Mariola Tesoro scored 12 points to lead the Broncs, who fell to 12-9. Dickemore scored eight, while Ryter tossed in six points to go along with nine rebounds. Also, Jorden Taggart scored five points, Johnson tossed in three, and Anilynn Mason, Sophia Doyle and Maggie Ringer each netted two.
Both teams advance to divisionals, and BC will open at 5 p.m. Thursday against Ronan, which fell to Libby in the third-place game of the Northwestern A Divisional tournament.
Central will be on the other side of the bracket as Northwestern A Columbia Falls, but Murphy knows the Wildkats are looming. So is No. 2 seed Browning.
“You’ve got Browning an C-Falls up there, and you’ve got to play them at some time,” the coach said. “I can guarantee you that we’re a better them than the last time we played C-Falls.”
The top for teams from divisionals move onto the Class A State tournament, which is March 7-9 in Great Falls. Murphy likes her team’s chances.
“Let the chips fall, just play basketball and see if we can’t sneak out a good finish and get to the state tournament,” she said.