By Bruce Sayler
BELGRADE — Kloie Thatcher caged 10 free throws in a row in the last minute and 11 seconds of the fourth quarter Friday night as Butte Central denied Dillon 54-41, stayed undefeated at 23-0 and landed a spot versus Columbia Falls in Saturday’s championship game of the state Class A high school girls’ basketball tournament.
The semifinal-round victory was the Maroons’ third against rival Dillon this season and it was well-earned. Thatcher finished with 21 points as the Beavers were forced to foul to have a chance at overtaking Butte Central in the final frame. The Maroons responded with 13 makes in 16 foul-shot attempts to lock up a chance at the fourth state championship in their program’s history.
The last title came in 2011, also on the Belgrade Special Events Center court. The tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday.
Emily St. John’s drive to the front of the hoop for a basket at 4:26 of the fourth quarter was Butte Central’s only field goal of the last quarter and gave the Maroons a 41-32 advantage. Dillon fouled the Maroons the rest of the way, stopping time and attempting to gain possession of the ball.
Thatcher thwarted the plan with her deadly sharpshooting from the foul line. St. John also made three free throws as Butte Central put the victory away.
“With about a minute and a half left, we knew we had to have the ball in Kloie’s and Mollie’s (Peoples) hands,” Butte Central head coach Meg Murphy said. “Kloie is a clutch person and she knew she had to go get (the ball).”
Thatcher, the 5-foot-7 star sophomore, though, did not think the decision was so obvious. “I think anyone could’ve gone to the line and we’d have been fine,” she said, “but Meg wanted it in our hands.”
Ten free throws in a row backed up the coaching decision.
“I just knew it was something that had to get done,” Thatcher said, saying she couldn’t allow herself to think about the pressure.
Murphy will be going for her fifth state championship as a Butte Central head coach and her third undefeated season, counting the 1999 and 2000 softball teams she guided to championships during a 56-game winning streak. She also coached the 1997 Maroon softball team to a state crown.
The title tilt will be a rematch of the Western A Super Divisional championship game played in the Butte Civic Center two weeks ago, and which Butte Central won, 51-41. Columbia Falls brings a 21-2 record into the fray after its 42-39 win over Browning in the Friday night first semifinal.
Defense ruled much of the game, especially the early going in the Dillon-Butte Central matchup.
Dillon grabbed an 11-9 first-quarter edge after Alex Rouse netted a jumper from just inside the perimeter off an inbounds pass from Bailey Berriochoa. The teams played bucket-for-bucket through the quarter, starting with Rouse’s baseline drive off another inbounds play, and a shot from the key by Peoples on a feed from Emily St. John.
The play remained the same through the second quarter, though the Maroons took an 18-16 halftime margin. Dillon had opened a 14-9 advantage after Rouse converted a basket-and-one to start the frame. St. John then canned back-to-back 3-pointers and Kailee Murphy sank a free throw as Butte Central went ahead, 16.14. The Beavers tied the score on a drive to the hoop by Brynley Fitzgerald. Kloie Thatcher passed into the key where St. John stopped and popped for the halftime edge.
“I thought our kids played hard in the first half,” Murphy said. “But Rouse had a good first half for them. She’s a great player. We went to a box-and-one against her with (Kate) Ossello and held her to one basket in the second half.”
The play of Ossello, a senior who comes in off the bench, was especially key. Both posts, senior Sierra Pica and sophomore Kailee Murphy, picked up their fourth fouls in the third quarter and their play was limited. Even when in the game, they then had to give ground to stay in the contest.
So, Ossello’s defense and experience came into light in the several minutes she logged. “Kate Ossello is a great defensive player,” coach Murphy said. “She’s a great kid. She did everything we asked her to do.”
The Maroons hit the court for the second half, looking a little more confident, quicker of step and determined. “Meg, at half, was telling us to get our stuff together and to get going,” Thatcher said. “We knew it was something we needed to do.”
The Maroons used a couple of scoring spurts to grab a 39-31 edge cushion heading into the fourth quarter. The gap had been 12 points, 39-27, after Thatcher tallied on a drive and 3-point basket, and Pica took the ball to the hoop off a pass from St. John. Rouse drilled a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the third to cut the difference to eight points after Fitzgerald hit a free throw.
Bailey Berriochoa knocked down a free throw for Dillon at the start of the fourth quarter, then St. John drove for the last Maroon field goal of the game. She followed with a free throw. The Beavers closed to within 42-35 as Kylie Christiansen put a rebound back through the hoop and Berriocha netted a foul shot. The teams then traded points, but not quite evenly. The Maroons managed to slowly build an insurmountable lead on the Thatcher string of free throws. Two by St. John with 25 seconds left ended the scoring for the game.
“Playing Dillon, we kind of grow up doing that, so we kind of know each other well,” Thatcher said. “But it changes as you grow, too, because it depends on how people grow and in which ways. Dillon has good athletes and they’re a hard team to play.”
The Beavers (16-8) will play Havre (15-9) at 11 a.m. for a spot in the 6:30 p.m. consolation final for the third-place trophy. The opponent will be the winner of the 9:30 a.m. loser-out game that pits Browning (18-5) against Billings Central (20-3).
Friday’s loser-out games saw Havre eliminate Frenchtown 44-40 and Billings Central bounce Lewistown 44-41.
“We play each other so many times, we do know them,” coach Murphy said about having had to take on the Beavers in the semifinal. “I thought we did a good job on (Rachael) Nye, too. She not being able to score was huge for us. We were at the point, at halftime, that we weren’t going to let Rouse beat us by herself.”
The Maroons still struggled on offense, except for coming through with big shots when they were needed. Dillon’s good defense interrupted any sustained continuity Butte Central tried to build. Coach Murphy said that sometimes the taxing defense the Maroons play, too, hinders their offense in a way, especially on the outside launches in which leg power is required to launch the ball all the way to the basket.
“Defensively, the girls put so much effort in that it tires their legs and that affects their shooting,” coach Murphy said. “So, we talked about just getting to the basket. Good things happen when you get to the basket.”
Thatcher scored 18 of her 21 points after halftime. St. John finished with 16 points, Peoples scored seven, Pica five, Murphy three and Ossello two. Taylor Wahl and Megan Michelotti also played.
Berriochoa led Dillon with 14 points, Rouse had 13, Fitzgerald 10 and Christiansen four. Paige Rouse and Kathleen Tatarka also played.
“It’s that time of the season and I think the two teams playing for the championship are the ones who deserve to be there,” coach Murphy said. “Our kids like to play basketball. That’s what I know. They pick each other up and somebody on the bench comes in and helps us every night. Tonight, it was Ossello and (Thursday) night it was Megan Michelotti. Taylor Wahl had a big game for us at the divisionals.”
Still, the coach said the team could use a little more help against a tall and good Columbia Falls team.
“Butte people,” she said, “get down here to support us.”
DILLON (15-8) — Paige Rouse 0 0-0 0, Alex Rouse 5 1-1 13, Kylie Christianson 2 0-0 4, Rachael Nye 0 0-0 0, Bailey Berriochoa 4 6-11 14, Brynley Fitzgerald 4 1-4 10, Kathleen Tatarka 0 0-0 0. Totals: 15 8-16 41.
BUTTE CENTRAL (23-0) — Kloie Thatcher 4 10-10 21, Mollie Peoples 3 0-0 7, Sierra Pica 2 1-6 5, Kailee Murphy 1 1-2 3, Emily St. John 5 3-6 16, Kate Ossello 1 0-0 2, Taylor Wahl 0 0-0 0, Megan Michelotti 0 0-0 0. Totals: 16 15-24 54.
Dillon 11 5 15 10 — 41
Butte Central 9 9 21 15 — 54
3-point goals: Dil 3 (Alex Rouse 2, Fitzgerald 1), BC 7 (Thatcher 3, St. John 3, Peoples 1). Fouls: Dil 20, BC 15. Fouled out: none. Technicals: none. 2 comments