By Bruce Sayler
Getting the lead was difficult enough for Butte Central, but holding it once the Maroons did was a constant task in high school girls’ basketball Friday night.
Butte Central won the Southwestern A Conference counter in a 35-31 struggle for both teams at the Maroon Activities Center.
Two girls — the Maroons’ Kloie Thatcher and Dillon’s Brynley Fitzgerald — scored 76 percent of the points, but it took the complimentary support roles performed by their teammates to keep both teams on victory’s brink.
Thatcher finished with 24 points, including all six of her team’s total in the fourth quarter, a frame in which she downed four clutch free throws in the waning seconds to clinch the win. Fitzgerald posted game-highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds and her fourth-quarter performance was one of awe, also — 10 points, including 8-for-8 on foul shots — to keep the Beavers in position for a chance to win, if Butte Central would have faltered.
“When we talked about this game, we talked about Kloie being the leader and taking control,” Meg Murphy, head coach of the Maroons, said. “We had to win and she had to be a big part of it.
“This was a big matchup — two of the best players in the state going one-on-one against each other.”
Both are headed for college basketball, too. Thatcher has signed with Rocky Mountain and Fitzgerald has committed to Montana State.
The Butte Central girls dressed in pink uniforms and handed out carnations before the game to cancer survivors and caretakers of cancer victims. It was Cancer Schmancer Night and funds were raised to fight the disease. Former Maroon Mairissa Peoples named her journal “Cancer Schmancer” as she chronicled her fight with the affliction before her death from cancer at age 24 in 2014.
The Maroons began the last quarter with a 29-21 lead. However, Fitzgerald canned four straight free throws and the Beavers had reeled Butte Central closer. Thatcher nailed a pullup jumper from the key, but Dillon came back with four more consecutive Fitzgerald charity tosses. So, it was a two-point game, Butte Central leading it 31-29 with a little more than three minutes left.
The last two free throws were scored when action was interrupted for a discussion by officials after realizing they had failed to award a one-and-one to Fitzgerald. The scoreboard showed it was the Maroons’ eighth team foul of the half.
The foul also cost Butte Central the services of senior post Megan Michelotti, who had then fouled out of the game.
The Maroons went to a ball-control possession in the frontcourt and Thatcher was fouled by Paige Rouse. Thatcher calmly sank both freebies and Butte Central’s edge was 33-29 with 1:04 on the clock.
Fitzgerald tried an off-balance shot from the key and it was short. Tricia Joyce came out of the scrum with the rebound and got the ball to Thatcher. Kyndall Petersen committed the foul on a slip that caused her to bump into the Maroons’ ace.
Thatcher iced the win with both free throws made and only 23 ticks left on the clock.
Dillon called a timeout just before a long 3-pointer Fitzgerald cast that swished through the net, but didn’t count. When time resumed, Fitzgerald tried another long shot. It missed, but she garnered the rebound and stuck it through the hoop.
The remaining eight seconds, though, evaporated shortly thereafter.
“We made some free throws down the stretch,” Murphy said, relieved and smiling. “And even though Fitzgerald got 26, I think the kids did a good job, defensively.”
The coach lauded the defensive play of Kailee Murphy on Rouse and Olivia Bolton on Petersen, limiting them to two total points. Part of Butte Central’s defensive prowess showed in the Beavers forced into more than twice as many turnovers as the Maroons, highlighted by an 11-1 steals comparison.
“Our bench did a good job, too,” coach Murphy said. “Ally (Mueller) and them gave us good minutes off the bench.”
A tight first quarter finished with Dillon leading 10-8, Rouse breaking the 8-all tie on a 13-footer off a pass from Josey Jones. The Maroons went ahead for good in the second quarter on a steal-and-layup by Thatcher for a 14-12 edge with 2:08 to go to halftime. Fitzgerald halved the difference with a free throw, but Joyce stretched the strings with a buzzer-beater from nearer to midcourt and the Maroons went to the locker room with a 17-13 advantage.
Thatcher buried a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter and Bolton drilled one as Butte Central fluffed its lead to 29-21.
The win capped a night’s sweep of Dillon for the Butte Central teams as the Maroons won the preceding boys’ game, 55-35. The Butte Central girls’ win also avenged a 37-34 overtime loss in Dillon earlier this season.
“That’s a game we’ll probably see again, you’ll see us battle again,” Meg Murphy said. “It’s always going to be a good battle.”
Dillon’s other five points came from Jordyn McKay with three and Rouse with two. Annie Larson and Tylia DeJohn also played. The loss put the Beavers at 7-8 for the season, 5-3 in Southwestern A Conference play.
Butte Central gained the tie-breaker edge over Dlllon with the victory and went to 11-4 and 6-3 record-wise. Bolton and Michelotti, who fought off the effects of an illness to play, finished with four points each and Joyce had three. Cassidy Strizic and Emma Keeley also saw action.
The Maroons secured a first-round bye in the February 15-17 district tournament with the win, too.
Butte Central will play Central A Conference contender Livingston Saturday in a 4 p.m. non-league tilt at the MAC.
DILLON (7-8, 5-3) — Paige Rouse 1-2 0-0 2, Jordyn McKay 1-1 1-2 3, Kyndall Petersen 0-2 0-0 0, Brynley Fitzgerald 6-17 12-14 26, Josey Jones 0-0 0-0 0, Annie Larson 0-1 0-0 0, Tylia DeJohn 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 8-24 `13-16 31.
BUTTE CENTRAL (11-4, 6-3) — Kloie Thatcher 7-15 8-10 24, Olivia Bolton 1-5 1-2 4, Cassidy Strizic 0-1 0-0 0, Megan Michelotti 2-5 0-0 4, Tricia Joyce 1-4 0-0 3, Kailee Murphy 0-1 0-0 0, Allyson Mueller 0-0 0-0 0, Emma Keeley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 11-31 9-12 35.
Dillon 10 3 8 10 — 31
Butte Central 8 9 12 6 — 35
3-point goals — Dillon 2-8 (Fitzgerald 2-7, DeJohn 0-1), Butte Central 4-12 (Thatcher 2-6, O. Bolton 1-3, Joyce 1-3). Fouled out — Michelotti. Total fouls — Dillon 13, Butte Central 14. Technicals — none. Rebounds — Dillon 25 (Fitzgerald 10), Butte Central 16 (Michelotti 4). Blocks — 0. Assists — Dillon 5 (Petersen 2), Butte Central 4 (Thatcher 2, Joyce 2). Steals — Dillon 1 (Fitzgerald), Butte Central 11 (Joyce 4, Thatcher 4, O. Bolton 3). Turnovers — Dillon 17, Butte Central 8.