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In two meetings during the regular season, the Belgrade High boys’ basketball team swept Butte Central.

That didn't seem to matter Thursday afternoon as the Maroons toppled the Panthers, 48-38, in the first round of the Class A state tournament at the Butte Civic Center.

The Maroons advanced to the semifinals, where they will play against defending champion Dillon Friday at 6:30 p.m. The Beavers have also beaten the Maroons twice during the regular season.

“You've got to grind for 32 minutes,” Central coach Brodie Kelly said of the key to winning at this tournament. “We had to. Last time we played them we played as hard as we possibly could and lost to them in the last seconds. We knew we had to keep playing defense extremely hard down the stretch.”

Butte Central’s lead fluctuated between 11 and one point during the In the second half.

The Panthers cut the Maroons lead to four, late in the fourth quarter, after junior Dawson Fowler scored off a rebound. But following the basket, Belgrade’s Easton Page drew his fifth foul and sent Butte Central senior Tanner Kump to the free-throw line. Kump hit the shots.

Butte Central's defense stepped it up another notch moments later when San Johnston forced a turnover. Johnston, who recorded five steals, knocked the ball away from Fowler and the two players took turns diving over each other in an attempt to get the ball.

The ball rolled to the Maroons' end of the court, where Nate McGree picked it up. McGree scored an uncontested layup that gave Butte Central a 45-37 lead with 43 seconds remaining.

Belgrade scored one more point from the free-throw line as Butte Central walked away with the win.

Butte Central was led by McGree with 16 points and six rebounds. Also chipping in under the bucket was freshman post Matt Simkins, with 10 points and four offensive rebounds. The Maroons shot 45 percent from the field and were 62 percent at the mercy stripe.

Panthers coach Mike Deming said his team was simply out of rhythm.

“I thought for four quarters they played harder than we did,” he said. “We had moments in the game where we played hard, but not for the entire game like they did. Over the course of a high school season, you’re going to have games where you play well and there will be games where you don’t play so well.”

Simkins did his part, especially during the third quarter, when he scored eight of his points.

McGree opened the Maroons' third-quarter scoring with a jumper, and Simkins went to work on the boards. The freshman knocked back his first bucket of the game off a rebound from Kump. He followed up 43 seconds later with another putback of an offensive rebound.

Simkins got to the hoop one play later and was fouled by Fowler. He missed his bonus bucket, but jumped up for the rebound and put it back to give the Maroons a 25-20 lead.

The Maroons biggest lead of the game in the frame was 11 points. Belgrade ended the quarter on a 9-0 run, but still trailed the Maroons 31-29 heading in the final frame.

The Maroons had the upper hand of this game from the beginning.

Butte Central notched its first points off a 3-pointer from Johnston. The Panthers tied the tilt up at 3-3 when senior Brock Salsburby scored on a jumper. But the Maroons defense was too much for the Panthers.

Belgrade scored one more field goal in the frame, from Salsbury. Central responded by ending the first quarter on a 7-0 run.

The Panthers picked up steam in the middle of the second quarter. Fowler hit the first field goal of the frame halfway through the quarter and followed up with another jumper and a bonus bucket to cut Butte Central’s lead to three points.

Butte Central stayed ahead as Kump knocked back a 3-pointer and Johnston paired up his shots at the line. The Maroons took a six-point lead into the locker room.

Butte Central’s defense held the Panthers' leading shooters. Fowler was limited to 12 points and two rebounds. Trey Layman led on the glass with 10 rebounds, but was held to five points. Belgrade was 1-for-15 and shot 30 percent from the field.

As the Maroons prepare to face the Beavers for the third time this year, Johnston is looking forward to the challenge.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We gave them a run the last two times, but now that we get to play them again hopefully we’ll do better. … Our goal is to just make it to state and to keep surviving and advancing from there.”

Billings Central 57, Polson 37

A sluggish first half is all that was needed to derail Polson’s hopes for a State Class A championship.

The Pirates made just four field goals and turned the ball over 14 times in the first half, giving Billings Central the chance to roll to an eventual 57-37 win, Thursday evening at the Butte Civic Center.

The victory left the Rams as one of four teams with a shot at the state crown. Billings Central was runner-up to Dillon last season and its chance at another shot at the Beavers can only come if both teams advance to this year’s finale.

“We came out very aggressive on defense and we did a nice job on defense,” Billings Central coach Jim Stergar said. “We made enough plays offensively to keep us with the momentum in the second half. I’m proud of our guys for keeping their focus.”

It was about the opposite for the Pirates, who never seemed to find their rhythm on offense. Polson coach Randy Kelley said that his team’s effort extended beyond that.

“It was just a lack of execution on our part,” he said. “We didn’t communicate very well on defense in the first half we got boxed out on a couple of their screens and stuff, and that was just a lack of communication.

“Offensively, we never got in a rhythm. I think we had 19 turnovers in the game and you can’t do that in a state tournament.”

Polson shot 30 percent from the field in the first half but took just 13 shots, compared to the Rams’ 26 during the same stretch. They did finish with 19 turnovers but 14 of those came during a first half in which they scored just 11 points and trailed by 14 by the break.

“It’s very frustrating,” Kelley said. “I’m at a loss for words. I was at a loss for words at halftime. I thought we lacked effort, really. I thought our effort was not there and that’s on me. I’ve got to get the kids ready to play and I’m not happy with the showing.”

While the Rams’ goal is to get back to the championship game, Stergar said it’s important for his players to focus on Friday’s semifinal game, rather than look ahead to Saturday.

“That’s a grind,” he said. “I know you look at the score and it’s a 20-point spread but it’s the state tournament and anything can happen. We did a nice job with a lot of things falling into place and now we’ve just got to turn the page and focus on the semifinals.”

Laurel 57, Hamilton 48

Persistence did not pay off for the Hamilton High boys’ basketball team in Thursday’s State Class A tournament opener at the Butte Civic Center.

Despite fighting their way back from a handful of deficits throughout the game, Laurel had the resolve needed to come away with a 57-48 win, and advanced to Friday’s semifinal showdown against Billings Central.

Billings Central won its way to the matchup with an easy win over Polson.

Layne Willis led the Locomotives with 14 points, while Christian Jones and Dawson Cortese added 13 and 11 respectively.

Laurel is looking for its second state championship in three seasons after capturing the trophy in 2015.

The Locomotives took an eight-point lead into halftime, only to watch the Broncs make it a two-point game with an 8-2 run.

Laurel came back to build a 43-37 advantage but Hamilton responded by tying the score at 43-all by the end of the third.

Despite the comebacks, however, Hamilton was never able to regain the lead in the second half.

The Broncs trailed by two on a Casey Cole basket but Carter Kearns tied the score with a pair of free throws with 5:52 to play in the fourth quarter.

Jones put Laurel back in front with 5:37 remaining but Camron Rothie tied the score at 47 with two more free throws.

Hamilton scored just one more point the rest of the way – on a free throw by Kearns – and the Locomotives were able to pull away. They took a 49-47 lead on a basket by Cortese before scoring their final eight points at the three-throw line.

“Laurel is a really good team and they’re really well-coached,” Hamilton coach Travis Blome said. “We spent a lot of energy coming back in that third quarter. A couple of shots didn’t fall our way but that’s basketball and we’ll move on.”

Hamilton was led by Hunter Omlid, who netted 13 points, and Kearns’ 11-point effort.

Laurel coach Patrick Hansen Jr. likened Thursday’s playoff opener as a boxing match of sorts, with each team taking shots at the other.

“I think (assistant) coach Steve Willis said it perfectly in the locker room,” Hansen said. “When we get into tournament play, you’re going to give punches and you’re going to take punches. Hamilton came out and they gave a good punch to us.

“We took a punch in the third quarter and it says a lot about our kids to give one back in the fourth quarter.”

Hamilton will try to rebound when it plays Polson at 2 p.m. The Billings Central-Laurel rematch – they’ve already played twice this season – is scheduled for 8 p.m.

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