You could see the frustration on the face of Butte Central boys’ basketball coach Brodie Kelly.

His Maroon squad, fresh off a trip to last year’s state championship tournament, had lost six of its first nine games and the season was on a downward spiral.

Kelly, as only a coach can do, saw some positives during consecutive losses to Anaconda, Stevensville, Belgrade, Hamilton and Dillon as late-December turned into 2017. The slide ended with a win over Livingston but resumed five days later with a setback to Butte High.

Kelly knew that something had to be done. Quickly.

“The fact of the matter is that when we were 3-6, we were four possessions away from being 7-2,” he recalled. “We were losing close games with missed free throws and layups late in the game. Our record was a little bit deceiving then.”

The Maroons came into the season with 14 players capable of competing at the varsity level. All of them wanted minutes. All brought something positive to the table.

Instead, Kelly went with a less-is-more approach after using 11 players in the Jan. 12 loss to Butte High.

He opted to go with an eight-man rotation.

“When we started to really put it together was after the Butte High game,” Kelly said. “We committed to an eight-man rotation. When we got into an eight-man rotation, it was clear that the guys who weren’t in it needed to earn their way back in. And they’ve done a great job. There are guys who are not in the eight-man rotation who have really filled their role well for us but the difference is that the eight guys who are in it, I think they really started to understand their role and jell and just play with more confidence. That mattered a lot and that changed things a lot.”

How much did it change things?

The Maroons have played in 13 games since that loss to Butte. They’ve won 10 of them, advancing through each step of the playoffs and landing back in the State Class A Championship Tournament.

Butte Central, along with seven other worthy teams, are three victories away from claiming this year’s state championship.

“We have 14 guys here who have really stuck together throughout the entire season and committed to doing whatever they were asked to do that was best for the team,” Kelly said. “It’s not easy. The guys that were not in the rotation were not hanging their head. They would have liked to see a lot more varsity minutes but they kept coming to practice and they got better. They made themselves better but also pushed the rest of these guys. That’s what has been going on for the last two months.”

And now it comes down to a final three days.

The Maroons are likely to slip under the radar when they arrive at the Butte Civic Center for their opening game against Belgrade at 2 p.m. It’s teams like Belgrade, Polson and an unbeaten Dillon squad that arrived in Butte as the teams to beat.

Coincidently, those three teams are the ones which beat Butte Central during its 13 post-Butte High games.

“We lost to Dillon, Belgrade and Polson,” Kelly said of the Maroons’ last 13 games. “Every one of those games was highly competitive. Against Belgrade, we had a five-point with under a minute, the Polson game was tied with 2:30 left, and the Dillon game in Dillon was tied with about 3 ½ minutes left.

“We didn’t close those but we proved that we could play with the top teams. Hopefully over the last two weeks we’ve continued to improve with a chance to play them again.”

Belgrade is one of only two teams to have beaten Butte Central twice this season, with Dillon being the other. The first time was during the Maroon’s early-season slide, and the second was in mid-February when Trey Layman hit the game-winning 3-point basket with 3.2 seconds to play to give the Panthers a 51-50 win. That was the only time since the loss to Dillon on Jan. 31 that the Maroons allowed more than 50 points.

The Maroons will need to be especially tough on defense during the tournament, which is fine because that is one facet in which the team takes pride. In its 13 wins this season, Butte Central has held its opponent to under 50 points 12 times.

“Statistically, it’s the best defensive team we’ve had in 13 years,” Kelly said. “Our 2012 team had the least points allowed since the 1940s. The team this year a point per game better than that one. This group, especially since Christmas, we’re giving up 44 points per game and our goal every game is to hold opponents under 48. I think we’ve achieved that in all but two games.”

The Maroons went 0-2 in last year’s state tournament, suffering losses to Hardin and Laurel. They hope to stick around a little longer this time around and have the talent and confidence to do so.

But then so do the seven other teams.

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