Wildcats scratch Maroons to take third-place trophy

By Bruce Sayler

Third place escaped Butte Central Saturday afternoon. One of the more successful growing seasons in Maroon history ended in a 58-53 defeat to a talented Columbia Falls squad in the consolation final of the state Class A high school boys’ basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center.
Much of BC’s state championship team of 2022 graduated last year after a third-place finish at State, and so lesser experienced and several smaller players reported for head coach Brodie Kelly’s 20th team last December. It worked out, though the style of ball was vastly different with only two players over 6 feet in the regular rotation. They happened also to be Butte Central’s only seniors – 6-foot-2 Jack Keeley and 6-5 Zane Moodry.
“I’m really proud of Jack and Zane for their parts in 67 wins their three years (on the varsity),” Kelly said. “They almost had three 20-win seasons. That’s pretty outstanding, especially going into this year providing leadership as our most experienced players.”
A lot of opponents looked at the Maroons’ roster in advance of this season and licked their chops with the graduation from it of so many stars. What they got was sour tastes in their mouths. This season’s BC boys were good, too. It came within five points of earning a third-place trophy.
“It came down to key plays in the last few minutes,” Kelly said. “They made shots, we didn’t. That’s tournament basketball. And in tournament basketball, those shots get magnified.”
Columbia Falls owned a 40-38 edge to start the fourth quarter and the frame stayed tight and competitive the last eight minutes. The Maroons stayed close enough to turn up a rally that brought them a 49-48 lead after two Owen McPartland free throws and a Ryan Peoples 3-pointer, the latter scored with 4 minutes, 8 seconds on the clock.
Reggie Sapa, who scored 12 of his 16 points in the last period, tallied on a drive as the Wildcats went ahead 50-49 only to see Keeley make a foul shot for a 50-all tie with 3:20 to play.
Columbia Falls gained some cushion as 6-4 senior Dayne Tu drove for a layin, stout 6-4 senior Cody Schweikert netted a pair of charity tosses and Sapa downed two more from the freebie stripe. So, the Wildcats’ bulge stood at 56-50 with only 30 seconds left.
Peoples cut the deficit in half with a 3-ball at the 18-second mark.
Freshman Parker Robertson committed successive fouls against Sapa in hopes of giving his teammates more scoring opportunities after hoped-for missed free throws. Sapa sank his first, missed his second and Robertson got off a shot that fell short. The Wildcats got the ball out of bounds, then Robertson fouled out with his other foul against Sapa. The 5-11 Columbia Falls junior missed the first, caged the second and a desperation try by Keeley was off the mark.
The Wildcats had won.
“I’m really proud of them (the Maroons) this year,” Kelly said. “We set the bar each year at the state championship level every year and it is hard to achieve that goal. But, five times in six years, we’ve made the Saturday night session at the State Tournament.”
He didn’t think the young BC club that has the sophomore Peoples and three freshmen in Robertson, Joshua Sutton and GG Fantini joining McPartland, junior Patrick Stimatz and the two seniors in the rotation.
“Underexperienced and undersized going into the season, maybe some didn’t think we had much chance,” Kelly said. “We lost a lot of talent last year. But this group is undersized and fearless. I think people like cheering for us, for this team in particular because we had a lot of great crowd support all season.”
Butte Central eliminated Billings Central 58-54 in a hotly battled contest Saturday morning to advance to the third-place game. Columbia Falls dominated Western A champion Hamilton 71-48 for its berth.
After the win over Billings Central, the Maroons grabbed a 15-9 first-quarter lead on Columbia Falls about 3 ½ hours later. Peoples hit two 3-pointers in the frame, and Keeley and Fantini each drained one.
The shots, though, stopped falling so easily for BC in the second quarter. The misses and Wildcat team that found the range combined for a 12-0 Columbia Falls run that resulted in a 25-19 Wildcat advantage with 3:18 left in the half. The scoring was well-dispersed with Tu, Sapa, 6-2 sophomore Easton Brooks, 6-2 senior Jace Hill and Schweikert all contributing points.
The halftime margin was 29-23.
Butte Central battled back, opening the second half with a basket by Moodry off a Keeley pass and then yet another Peoples 3-pointer. Alihn Anderson canned a 3-point shot for the Wildcats to restore a 32-28 spread. Moodry came back with a rebound basket for the Maroons, but Columbia Falls answered with a 3-ball by Tu.
The BC boys kept the heat on and trailed by only 40-38 at the quarter break after a dribble-shoot basket by McPartland.
Butte Central finished the season with a 19-6 record. McPartland led the team’s scoring in its finale with 18 points and Peoples hit five 3-pointers for 15 points. Keeley had eight points, Moodry six, and Fantini and Robertson scored three apiece. Sutton and Stimatz also saw a lot of court time. Keeley took down a game-high 11 rebounds.
Sapa led Columbia Falls with 16 points, and Hill and Schweikert finished with 10 each. Schweikert led the team on the boards with seven rebounds.
The game also marked the last for Missoula referee Bryan Porch who is now retired after 41 years officiating Montan ahigh school basketball. He was acknowledged in remarks prior to the tip-off.
BUTTE CENTRAL (19-6) – Joshua Sutton 0-1 0-0 0, Ryan Peoples 5-10 0-0 15, Jack Keeley 2-13 3-7 8, Owen McPartland 6-14 2-2 18, Zane Moodry 3-4 0-0 6, Patrick Stimatz 0-0 0-0 0, GG Fantini 1-2 0-0 3, Parker Robertson 1-2 1-1 3. Totals 18-46 6-10 53.
COLUMBIA FALLS (17-9) – Dayne Tu 4-5 0-0 9, Mark Robison 2-7 0-0 6, Alihn Anderson 1-3 0-0 3, Jace Hill 4-9 2-2 10, Cody Schweikert 4-9 2-2 10, Chance Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Reggie Sapa 5-6 6-9 16, Easton Brooks 2-3 1-1 4, Hunter Goodman 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-42 10-13 58.
Butte Central 15 8 15 15 – 53
Columbia Falls 9 20 11 18 – 58
3-point goals – Butte Central 11-25 (Peoples 5-8, Keeley 1-7, McPartland 4-8, Fantini 1-1, Robertson 0-1), Columbia Falls 4-11 (Tu 1-2, Robison 2-5, Anderson 1-2, Hill 0-1, Sapa 0-1). Fouled out – Robertson. Total fouls – Butte Central 12, Columbia Falls 10. Rebounds – Butte Central 26 (Keeley 11), Columbia Falls 23 (Schweikert 7). Blocks – Butte Central 0, Columbia Falls 1 (Brooks). Assists – Butte Central 9 (McPartland 4), Columbia Falls 9 (Schweikert 4). Steals – Butte Central 2 (Fantini 1, Robertson 1), Columbia Falls 4 (Hill 2). Turnovers – Butte Central 9, Columbia Falls 5.