By Bruce Sayler
HELENA — When the fourth quarter arrived at seemingly its best time for Butte High, it might’ve actually been at its worst.
Two Bulldog starters fouled out and Missoula Hellgate cleaned up at the free throw line. So, the Knights survived Butte High’s upset bid Thursday and defeated the Bulldogs 65-55 in the first round of the Western AA Divisional high school boys’ basketball tournament in the Carroll College P.E. Center. (Stats)
Senior guard Kenley Leary gunned in three straight 3-point field goals in the third quarter to help his team erase a 33-28 halftime deficit and grab a 48-47 edge going into the last period.
Hellgate, though, overcame it with a 7-0 run led by 6-foot-4 junior Connor Dick and the Bulldogs never caught up again.
Team heart-and-soul Kenley Leary fouled out with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in the game and junior ace Cameron Gurnsey followed him to the bench three minutes later for the same reason.
Dick made 10 free throws in the last quarter while going 10-for-13 from the foul line for the game. He finished with 22 points, but his charity tosses showed no kindness toward the Bulldogs.
Dick fouled out, too, in the last 30 seconds.
“It was a heck of an effort,” Butte High head coach Matt Luedtke said. “We hung around and hung around and got that one-point lead at the end of the third quarter.”
Leary brought the lead with his long-range shot at the buzzer.
“The fourth didn’t start well for us,” Luedtke said. “We tried to get the ball inside to ‘Koop’ (Kooper Klobucar), but they shot a lot of free throws. We didn’t shoot any.
“We weren’t aggressive enough and, when we were, our guys were looking to get bailed out (by officiating calls). I thought the game was physical enough to where we should have gotten to the line more.”
Hellgate attempted 18 freebies in the final frame and the Bulldogs were 1-for-4 from the line. Butte High was also stuck in a position of having to play catch-up ball the whole quarter, likely leading to many of the fouls.
Leary finished with 17 points and Gurnsey with 15 before they left with their foul quotas. Attempts to find the 6-foot-6 Klobucar inside the paint found enough success for the big man to knock down nine points, and he also had six rebounds. Jace Stenson also had nine points.
“They are so physical and when we lost Kenley, it was really bad for us,” Luedtke said. “He’s our spark offensively and plays aggressively.”
The competition was sizzling from the start. Butte High grabbed a 3-0 edge as Stenson scored off a pass from Leary and Gurnsey dropped in a free throw.
Hellgate tied it on one shot, a trey by Asher Topp. The Bulldogs got out to a 10-7 lead, but the Knights bounced back and held a 17-15 edge after Easton Sant’s pullup jumper just before the first-quarter horn.
The score was tied 18-all after a Tocher Lee 3-pointer two minutes into the second period. Dick then chained six points together and Ian Finch capped an 8-0 Hellgate run with a layup fed him by Sant.
Butte High clipped enough off the difference to trail by five points, 33-23, at halftime. It was a starting block toward the lead after the next period, before Hellgate heat melted it, too.
“When we got that lead going into the fourth quarter, I thought we would turn it on,” Luedtke said. “We have to learn to play with a lead. It has happened a lot – we get a lead and then we give it back. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Butte High was never out of the game until so late in it.
“(The Knights) are good,” Luedtke said. “It’s not like we got beat by a bad team. We came in with the mindset that we were going to get the win. We wanted to win.
“I am not disappointed in our effort. Everybody played hard. It just wasn’t our night. It comes down to, we have to make the baskets.”
Jonas Sherman had two points for Butte High and Dylan Bache, Bo Demarais and Rueso Batterman also played. The Bulldogs will play Missoula Sentinel on Friday at 11 a.m. in a loser-out game. Butte High has a 4-15 season record.
Hellgate, 16-3, will play Missoula Big Sky in Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal. Dre Bowie scored 11 points Thursday to back Dick’s 23. Three Knights scored five points each.
“Our kids have to get over the loss and come in here and win tomorrow,” Luedtke said. “It is a sad time of the year because seniors are seeing their careers coming to an end. That’s part of playing and coaching high school basketball. So, we have to come back tomorrow and be ready to go.
“I’m proud of the guys. The efforts of Koop and Kenley and others were awesome. We’ll need them to give them again tomorrow.”