Tourney time closes season in style

Probably the best thing tournament basketball does is apply the exclamation point to the season. In so-so or losing years especially, the hoops season can become mundane and drag on through a calendar span that covers holidays like Halloween, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day, St. Patrick’s Day and, at least nationally, Easter Sunday.

Tournaments, though, rescue us, especially when some of our favorites step up to perform.

The State A girls’ tournament that Old Reliable, Advantage Butte, lured to us for the second straight year supplied such entertainment last weekend. Laurel used a quick first step to top defending champion Billings Central for the throne, but, locally, Butte Central, I didn’t think, surely did not disappoint.

Of course, the Maroons were disappointed. They didn’t win. I don’t think their fans were disappointed in them, however, especially when it seemed the senior class members were on a rotation schedule to fill the void of injured leader Danee Leary, who sat out the tourney for medical reasons.

The BC girls placed fourth in the state tournament. That’s pretty good. Center Mariah Cooney put forth a strong tourney-long effort with her double-doubles while heroics also came from fellow seniors Alysea Pica, Danika Neumann, Hannah Stajcar, Annie Ossello and Aleesha LaBreche, often seeming to take turns in the spotlight just so each could hear her applause — fittingly.

We got to say thanks. We’ll show our gratitude for the Butte Central boys’ and both Butte High varsity teams after what will be strong efforts, hopefully, successful ones, this weekend.

LaBreche’s moment was a favorite. She backs up in the post and didn’t see an overabundance of action during a dedicated four years of playing for the Maroons. She helped make the team better by forcing players like Leary, Cooney and Ossello to step it up in practice. She helped make the tourney a showcase by putting in the winning basket on Friday versus Columbia Falls in loser-out play and caging a 3-pointer on Saturday night in the consolation loss to Browning.

Her dad, Lee, joked that he closed his eyes when “she let loose of that one,” but somehow he still knew it caught “nothing but net.” Dads always know, don’t they?

Stajcar might have had a career game in the consolation final after Cooney and Pica were instrumental in the Saturday morning win over Havre in loser-out play. Neumann’s defense out front and Ossello’s play inside the key sometimes got lost over the season in the overall team effort.

Neumann put a nice outside shot off the quick hands that garnered her a lot of steals. Ossello, though a little light for the post, did a good job with positioning and was key in screening away opposing board-workers to help her teammates snare rebounds.

Cooney, Ossello and LaBreche were each adept at executing the quick kickout pass that ignited the BC perimeter offense.

The community has to love the Kelsey Poore photo of all the Butte High and Butte Central basketball players photographed together recently in the Civic Center seats. I liked that it didn’t group the kids according to teams, but positioned them seemingly randomly to show they represent The Mining City and not just their individual schools.

They’re all our kids. What I didn’t like about it is the reminder of my personal aging. I covered the parents of most of these kids earlier in my career here in town. They come from pretty good stock.

The State A girls’ championship game saw Laurel fence up a tough 2-3 zone defense against the Rams and Billings Central tried to penetrate it rather than using the more conventional tactic of trying to shoot over it. The Rams tried to counter defensively with an intense press, but the Locomotives broke it and were too quick for Billings Central. Laurel took an early lead by beating the Rams off the dribble once reaching the perimeter.

Still, Billings Central’s Allie Lucas canned a 3-point shot to cut the Locomotives’ lead to 30-29 with 1 minute, 42 seconds left in the defensive tussle. Justyn Juhl’s two free throws for the Rams knotted the count at 31-all, setting the stage for tourney MVP Jayde LeFevre to net two foul shots at the end to win it, a 33-31 decision in favor of Laurel over its next-door rival.

The inside play was particularly strong in this tournament with the likes of Cooney, Juhl, Browning’s Tiara Gilham, Laurel’s DeLayna Christenson and Frenchtown’s Vanessa Stavish all drawing strong notices. Stavish was quite impressive in her battle with Stevensville’s Lady Griz commit, 6-foot-3 Alycia Sims. Though Sims’ numbers seemed to be down in the tournament, she remains a game-changer with her ability to alter shots, rebound and intimidate.

The Class B schools decided to try a boys’-girls’ combined tourney to decide state championships this year in a format similar to the one Class AA has used for several seasons, now. Butte convinced the state to let it be the first community to play host to it. It starts with eight games on Thursday in the Civic Center and goes through Saturday. The Whitehall boys and Deer Lodge girls are our closest teams in the fray and, for those of you needing somebody to cheer for in order to have an interest in the tourney, these two outfits are certainly worthy of support.

Class B is a good brand. Checking it out would be well worth your time if you’re unable to follow the Bulldogs and the Maroons this weekend. Schedules are available on this website.