By Derek Hendrickson
The Butte Central Maroons relied on their defense to finally beat the Belgrade for the first time in three tries, winning the only one that mattered, 48-38 Friday afternoon in the first round of the Class A State boys’ basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center. Stats
The play of the game exemplified the type of effort that head coach Brodie Kelly has always pushed from the kids he’s coached and may have gotten the biggest reaction that Kelly has ever shown as the leader of the Maroons.
With the score 43-37 and about a minute to go Sam Johnston tipped the ball free from Belgrade point guard Dawson Fowler. It was a 50/50 ball as either one could have gotten there. Johnston showed who wanted it more.
Johnston dove as he knew he couldn’t quite get to the ball to possess it and tipped it down the court where it was grabbed just before going out of bounds by Nate McGree who had an uncontested layup and gave the Maroons an 8 point lead as well as McGree’s game high 16th point.
The crowd erupted, Kelly jumped in the air and Johnston earned a nasty floor burn on his right hip to go with a bloody nose he got after being fouled late when the Panthers tried to extend the game.
“The play that Sam Johnston made, that steal where he dove on the floor, that’s awesome. I love that stuff,” Kelly said. “That was the difference.”
The play ended any hopes the Panthers had of a comeback and showed exactly the type of grit and determination that is strived for in Maroon athletics.
“I saw he wasn’t looking at me and I was coming from his backside,” Johnston said about his game sealing steal. “I knew it was time to make a play, get the momentum back. The ceiling is the roof I guess.”
That type of play was also what stood out to longtime Panther head coach Mike Deming when he spoke after the game.
“They had good energy and intensity and we didn’t match it the entire game,” Deming said. “I thought for four quarters they played harder than we did. We had moments where we played hard but not for the entire game like they did.”
And for all their efforts the Maroons will be rewarded with a trip to semifinals to play the undefeated Dillon Beavers, five point winners over Hardin to open the tournament.
The Maroons hung with Dillon both times they played previously, losing by seven both times.
“Dillon is a really good basketball team,” Kelly said when asked about his semifinal opponent. “They are a really good basketball team, the margin for error is really slim, I know you’ve got to play really composed basketball, you’ve got to make plays and you’ve got to be mentally tough against them in the fourth quarter against them.”
Central had also dropped both decisions to the Panthers this season, getting blown out in Belgrade before Trey Layman hit a long three late for a one point win at the MAC.
Kelly talked about the difference between this game compared to the others and gave props to those who don’t see much playing time, saying “I think we were more prepared. The guys in practice who don’t play, a lot of the credit for this win goes to them. They worked so hard the last 7 practices to give us the look that Belgrade gives us and that really helped us be prepared for today.”
In that last game Belgrade connected on 9 of 22 from behind the arc. Today the Maroons held the Panthers to just 1 of 15 from three.
“In the course of a high school season you’re going to have games where you play well and others where you don’t play so well, unfortunately this was a game where we didn’t play so well,” Deming said when asked about his teams shooting. “Credit the defense by Butte Central but we were just out of rhythm. Their defense was solid but we just couldn’t find any footing and our shots didn’t fall. It’s just one of those things where high school athletes, sometimes they play great, we played great this year, but tonight just wasn’t one of those days.”
The Maroons held off a furious run by the Panthers in the second half. Freshman Matt Simkins had the quarter of his young career when he poured in 8 straight points to give Central a 31-20 advantage midway through the third.
“Matt was phenomenal in the third quarter,” Kelly said of his young starter. “The put backs, keeping the ball alive and just hustling, that was huge.”
“The ball was just coming my way off the boards,” Simkins said when asked about his outburst. “Just kept going for them, hustling really hard.”
Simkins went to the bench with his fourth foul less than a minute later and Central still up by 9. Little did anyone realize how integral he was to the offense as the Maroons went on a dry spell that lasted 5:32 when Dan McCloskey hit a free throw.
Belgrade took advantage by cutting the lead to a single point on a Fowler jumper, making it 32-31.
The big Panther run coincided with Belgrade switching to a 1-3-1 defense that threw the Maroons off as the adjusted to the new look.
“These games are so hard to win,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to grind for thirty two minutes. Last time we played them we played as hard as we possibly could and lost at the last second. We knew we had to keep playing defense extremely hard down the stretch and our guys did that.”
Central relied on the free throw line to rebuild the lead, running off five straight points to push the lead back to 37-31.
Simkins came back in the game midway through the fourth and ended the drought from the floor with a driving layup to push the lead back to six and ending a stretch of 8:24 between Maroon field goals. He finished with 10 points, all in the second half.
Fowler, who led Belgrade with 12 points would hit a jumper to make it 41-37 with just under 2 minutes to go but the Panthers would get no closer. Moments later Johnston’s hustle iced the win.
“We were locked in defensively,” Kelly said. “That team, I think is as good offensively as anyone we’ve played. To hold them to 38 points is pretty phenomenal. Our guys played defense really cohesively, everyone was helping each other out and I felt that we made them shoot a lot of difficult shots today.”
The first quarter was one where the teams were feeling each other out and appeared to be headed to somewhat of a draw when the Maroons held a 6-5 lead.
Cade Holter made a layup and the Maroons got a stop with under a minute left and were content to head to the second quarter after a last shot, up 8-5.
Johnston was attempting to wind the clock down when he found a wide open Jared Simkins for an easy two about under fifteen ticks on the clock.
Belgrade hustled up the floor to get their own last second shot but Johnston stepped in front of a pass and was off to the races. He got to bucket, hit the shot and got hammered. The free throw gave Central a 13-5 edge.
The Panthers battled back to make it 16-13 but a Panther fell to the floor and left Tanner Kump completely uncovered. It would be the only field goal for Kump as he was closely defended all game long but the three pushed the advantage back to six.
Another hustle play by Johnston got the Maroons more free points as Belgrade misfired on a couple late attempts before the end of the first half. With 3 seconds to go Johnston grabbed a rebound and was fouled trying to come out of the pack to earn a one-and-one. He drilled both shots and made it 21-15 at half.
“I felt like we had everything on the line, it was all or nothing,” Johnston said about his intensity. “We kept a really good offensive team to 38 points, if we can keep anybody under 48, that’s our goal to win and we usually do.”
Johnston was third on the team in scoring with nine. Kump added eight, Jared Simkins and Cade Holter both scored two, McCloskey had one to round out the scoresheet.
Archie “The Mayor” Petritz and Luke Heaphy also logged minutes for Central.
Salsbury scored 9, but only managed 1 of 7 from three in this game, down from the 5 of 10 effort last month at the MAC. Spencer Gordon had seven, Layman, the hero from last game was held to just five, Easton Page scored four and Hayden Van Winkle had a point for Belgrade.
As a team the Panthers shot 15 of 50, an icy 30 percent clip. The Maroons took 19 fewer attempts from the field but hit on 14 of 31 for 45 percent.
Central hit on 18 of 29 from the line as Belgrade began fouling early to try to extend the game. The Maroons we 13 of 20 from the line in the second half.
The Panthers will play against Hardin Friday at 12:30 p.m. as the attempt to prolong their season.