BILLINGS -- The most difficult position on the basketball court Thursday night was the unlucky soul who had to guard Missoula Sentinel's Sam Beighle.
That honor fell to Ben LaBeau, Billings Senior's starting guard who is tasked with following the opposing team's best player night in and out. Beighle, who was selected the Gatorade Player of the Year just hours earlier, dropped 32 points but LaBeau had some key late stops and the Broncs held on to defeat the Spartans 61-59 to end the first round of the Class AA state basketball tournament.
"It's a tough challenge. He's an amazing player, but I just try to go out there and do anything I can. Just fluster him and try to knock off any shot possible," LaBeau said. "I don't think you can really prepare for that but I just tried to get up on him, get over screens, always keep a hand in his face and just try to change his shots."
Beighle began to find his shot more as the game went on, and connected on a couple of NBA-range 3-pointers to keep the Spartans within striking distance in a back-and-forth contest all the way through. Thanks to some hot shooting from Braxton Haws, Senior jumped out to a quick lead in the first quarter but Beighle and Gaige DeShazer couldn't miss and brought the Spartans to a 34-31 halftime lead.
The second half continued with a see-saw contest. Senior grabbed an eight-point lead with 2:19 left in the game but Sentinel continued to chip away. Beighle had 12 of his team's final 14 points but two free throws from Haws and a late steal from LaBeau kept the Broncs just out of reach of the Spartans. LaBeau also stayed glued on Beighle late in the game, forcing tough shots or for him to get rid of the ball entirely.
Haws and Connor Kieckbusch each finished with 19 points and Brooks Zimmer added 10, eight of which came in the second half off of nice high-low ball movement. The Broncs knocked down a scorching 66 percent of their shots. LaBeau, who head coach Drew Haws dubbed the team's "unsung hero," doesn't score much but finished with five: the first points of the game and a 3-pointer with 6:30 left in the game to break a 47-47 tie and give Senior the lead for good.
"At divisionals I hit a couple of threes against Skyview so I feel confident right now. I was looking to Kieckbusch and I was open so I got ready and shot it. 'Please go in,'" he added with a laugh. Senior will play Bozeman at 8 p.m. on Friday in the semifinals.
Beighle added eight rebounds and five assists to his game while DeShazer finished with 17. Senior's win capped off an Eastern AA sweep on the boys side in the first round. The Spartans will play Helena at 1:30 p.m. in a loser out game on Friday.
Bozeman 65, Helena 40
Bozeman quickly built a double-digit lead and went on to beat Helena 65-40 behind 16 points and eight rebounds from Mack Anderson.
Ryan Lonergan and Robbie Simpson added 15 and 10 points, respectively, to help send the Hawks into the semifinals. Simpson also had six assists while Anderson tallied four blocks.
"One thing I was excited about after divisionals was they had played in those tournament games so I felt like we were really clean today," Bozeman coach Wes Holmquist said. "Usually that first game at state is a little bit of those nerves. I think they got those out of the way last weekend. I thought we just did a really good job of executing on both ends."
Bozeman shot 55 percent in the first half and led 30-18 going into the break. The Hawks also held the Bengals to 37 percent shooting and 3-for-18 shooting from 3-point range.
Grady Koenig scored 11 points to lead Helena, which drops into a loser-out game against Missoula Sentinel at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
"The biggest thing is trying to get them to relax a little bit and not get too amped up," Holmquist said about getting ready for the semifinal. "We have until 8 p.m. tomorrow night and tomorrow is a long day. These semifinals are tough. Been through a lot of them. They're just a grind so we want them to be well-rested tomorrow."
Great Falls CMR 51, Kalispell Glacier 49 (ot)
After Great Falls CMR head coach John Cislo gave his post-game speech, his players decided to surprise him with a song.
The Rustlers sang "Happy Birthday" to their coach just minutes after they edged out defending-champion Kalispell Glacier 51-49 in overtime to advance to the semifinals.
That, should we say, was the icing on the cake to a solid opening to the tournament.
"It means a lot for me for those kids just to be able to get to the next night," Cislo, who turned 49, said. "We had a lot of success about a decade ago, then we've been down here about the last four or five years ... This year we've had some kids that do a pretty good job of playing together and just proud of them.
"This group of seniors deserve a chance go play in the semifinals and hopefully get to the championship."
A final shot by Glacier's Collin Kazmier at the buzzer hit off the front of the rim, ensuring the Electric City will have a team playing for the state championship. With the win, CMR advanced to play Great Falls High in Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
"For the city of Great Falls I think it's great. Hopefully we get a lot of people coming down," Cislo said. "Nice thing is one of us is going to be in the championship and hopefully it's us."
Sam Vining had 22 points for the Rustlers, who didn't tie the score until 4:33 remained in regulation on two Tucker Greenwell free throws. Greenwell followed that up with a 3-point play to give the Rustlers their first lead of the game with 2:20 left in regulation.
After Glacier grabbed a two-point lead, Bryce Depping knocked down free throws to make it 43-43 and force the game into overtime. Brec Rademacher would knock down a 3-pointer to give Glacier a one-point lead in overtime but two more Depping free throws gave the Rustlers the lead for good with about a minute to play. Vining would follow up with two free throws to make it 51-48.
"Two more missed free throws and they win the game," Vining said. "They're a huge part of the game and definitely determined the outcome of the game."
The drama didn't end as Glacier's Caden Harkins went 1-2 at the free throw line to make it a two-point game. After missing the second free throw, CMR was called for a travel, giving the Wolfpack 2.9 seconds to get a shot off. After Kazmier's shot missed, CMR players erupted in celebration having avoided the upset.
"My mind was going one million miles an hour I can't even tell you what's going through my mind (when that last shot went off). Just happy it didn't go in," Vining said said with a laugh.
Kody Jarvis scored 15 points before fouling out to lead Glacier, which has played overtime in each of its last three games. The Wolfpack will play Missoula Hellgate in a noon loser-out game on Friday.
Great Falls 56, Missoula Hellgate 49
Kendall Kynett's 11 third-quarter points sparked Great Falls to a lead over Missoula Hellgate and the Bison held on to beat the Knights 56-49 in the first round.
The Bison, who trailed 22-21 at halftime, built a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Hellgate chipped it down to four in the closing minutes.
"Bright lights (at the state tournament) but you just have to focus up and take care of business," Kynett said. "As we got into the game and got settled and then we just started letting it fly."
Great Falls went 8 for 8 from the foul line in the final 50 seconds to seal the win.
"We get in the habit of backing up and that's not very good so we got a little aggressive offensively," Great Falls coach Bob Howard said. "Hunter (McKinney) hit a couple of shots early and in the second half Kynett, (Blake) Thelen hit some shots and (Kevin) Boes played really well on the boards. It's more about making a couple of shots and going from there."
Kynett finished with 19 points and Thelen added 12 for the Bison, who advance to the semifinals against crosstown rival CMR. The Bison made the semifinals last year as well.
"As ready as you can be, I think," Kynett, who started last year for the Bison as well, said about getting back. The Bison shot the ball 7 for 14 from 3-point range and 47 percent from the field.
Bridger Deden led Hellgate with 18 points and Rollie Worster had 16 points and eight rebounds for the Knights who shot just 30 percent from the field. The Knights play a loser-out game against Kalispell Glacier at noon on Friday.