BILLINGS — For the first time since Josh Huestis led Great Falls CMR to back-to-back state championships in 2009 and 2010, the Rustlers were crowned State AA boys basketball champions after an 81-69 victory over Bozeman at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Saturday.
Huestis, a forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Rustlers completed their back-to-back on Metra's floor eight years ago. Now, it was time for a new crop of players to lead the school to glory.
Sam Vining poured in 25 points for the Rustlers, shooting 8 for 12 from the field and 5 for 8 from three to lead the Rustlers. Three other players scored in double digits as Garrison Rothwell scored 17, Bryce Depping dropped 15 and Jake Olsen tallied 10 more as CMR shot 54 percent from the field and 10 for 20 from 3-point range.
"They're all great. I remember being an assistant for (Mike) McLean in 2000 when our school went almost 20-some years without a title and that felt pretty dang good," CMR coach John Cislo, who coached the Rustlers to the back-to-back titles, said. "They all feel really good. I think this one's a little more special just for the fact that we haven't been in the state tournament (since 2014) and these kids worked their tails off and had a lot of adversity and stepped up and (now they're) state champs."
After leading Bozeman by only one point after the first quarter, CMR blew the doors open in the second, opening on a 7-0 run and led by 13 with just under two minutes left. Rothwell opened with a 10-point first quarter and Vining and Olsen took over from there, each scoring eight points to keep the pressure on the Hawks.
"(Coming into the season) there's a little thought in the back of my head (that we could be state champs)," Rothwell said. "I was more worried at least making it here for the first time. I made sure to stay calm but excited, too, to keep the energy up. Stay calm and shoot the ball how I've practiced thousands of times."
Bozeman would continue to try and close the gap in the second half, bringing it to within five, 46-41, at one point in the third. Rothwell and Vining would then combine for three straight 3-pointers to spark a 13-4 run to give the Rustlers a 59-45 lead, and they never looked back.
"It's probably the best feeling in the world, man," a breathless Vining, who was being mobbed by family and friends, said. "I've never even been to the state tournament so to even to make it to state is such an honor. We just took it a game at a time and got it done. I don't know what to feel right now.
"It's crazy seeing all the people who've been through it over the years with you. People that have been there since day one all coming together to celebrate is the best feeling in the world."
Bozeman's Mack Anderson would convert a putback dunk to bring the Hawks within single digits with 5:21 left, but that's as close as they got down the stretch. Vining seemingly iced the game after getting open for a 3-pointer, in which he took his time, pulled up, and knocked down his final points of the game with around a minute left.
"I was thinking about not shooting it considering the clock and score but I just decided to put the dagger in them," Vining said. "I'm glad I shot it."
Cislo called timeout with 51 seconds left and both teams subbed their entire teams, sending the faithful in green and yellow into celebration.
Anderson, a Montana signee, finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds. He battled foul trouble early in the game, an advantage CMR used when Anderson was forced to sit in the second quarter. Robbie Simpson tallied 16 points and Ryan Lonergan added 15 for the Hawks, who finished the season at 15-9. CMR (19-4) was 4-0 against the Hawks this season.
This is the third straight year Bozeman has lost in the championship game. Bozeman Wes Holmquist and Cislo, a pair of good friends, embraced before the game as the team's starters were introduced.
"They're a very good team, they deserve to be state champs. I told (Cislo) I love him. We've been through a lot together, too. I'm really happy for him because he's been through a rough stretch these last few years," Holmquist said. "If anybody deserves it, it's that guy, so I'm really happy for him.
"I just feel for the kids, man. Unfortunately, I've been through this a little bit the last few years. It's hard to see them kind of get their dreams snatched away from them. But, like I told them, they really battled ... I love the kids. That's the hardest part about the whole thing. It's hard to see them go through that suffering but it's something that's going to help them the rest of their lives. I'm just really proud of them."
Great Falls 65, Billings Senior 51
Great Falls High struck quick and true in the opening quarter against Billings Senior and never looked back as the Bison defeated the Broncs 65-51 to claim the third-place trophy.
Senior Kendall Kynett scored 24 points and junior Kyle Torgerson added 13 for the Bison who raced to a 23-13 lead at the end of the first quarter and never looked back.
“It feels good. It’s a great team and they came through and it’s quite an accomplishment for these guys,” Great Falls coach Bob Howard said. “Especially after that semifinal (on Friday) and to win two games today, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Great Falls defeated Missoula Sentinel earlier Saturday to advance to the consolation final. This is the second year in a row the Bison advance to the third-place game, losing to Billings Skyview a year ago. Great Falls will lose five seniors, three of them starters in Kynett, Kevin Boes and Hunter McKinney, with Kyle Winkler and Teagan Olson rounding out the group. The Bison finish 20-6.
“That’s a great group of kids,” Howard said. “They’re the second group of seniors to be to state all four years and they got a trophy out of it. They played a lot of good basketball and they’re a nice group of kids.”
The Broncs defeated Missoula Hellgate for a shot at the third-place title. The Broncs brought the game within six points a couple of times in the fourth quarter and were led offensively by Connor Kieckbusch who had 14 and Braxton Haws who added 11. Senior was back in the state tournament for the first time since 2012 and had advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2000.
The Broncs will see seven seniors go including Kieckbusch and Haws along with fellow starters Ben LaBeau, Slade Cobb and Brooks Zimmer. Michael Van Atta and Sam Evenson also finished up their final games for the Broncs who finish the season 14-12.
“It’s the hardest day for a coach. I love those kids and it’s the hardest part,” Senior coach Drew Haws said. “They just mean so much to our program. The hard work they put in paid off for them and it’s everybody’s goal to play on Saturday at the state tournament and these guys had the opportunity to do that and they hadn’t seen that their whole high school career. They’ve done so many things not just for this program but myself as well.”
Billings Senior 65, Missoula Hellgate 61
Just about 12 hours after suffering a heartbreaking loss to Bozeman in the semifinals, Billings Senior rebounded with a 65-61 victory over Missoula Hellgate.
Four Broncs scored in double-digits, led by Sam Evenson who scored 15. Braxton Haws finished with 14, Connor Kieckbusch scored 12 and Brooks Zimmer tallied 10 for Senior.
Senior trailed early in the first quarter but evened the game up at 29-29 by halftime. A five-point advantage in the third helped propel the Broncs in the second half. Slade Cobb added eight points for Senior which will take on the Bison at 5 p.m. at Metra on Saturday evening.
The Eastern AA rounds out the final four as Great Falls CMR and Bozeman will battle for the state championship after Senior and Great Falls.
Rollie Worster led the game with 25 points for Hellgate while Bridger Deden added 12 and Kade Lunday scored 10. The Knights, who qualified for their AA-leading eighth straight state tournament, will end the season 17-7.
Great Falls 67, Missoula Sentinel 64
Great Falls High is heading to the third-place game for the second straight year after a 67-64 win over Missoula Sentinel on Saturday morning at Billings Skyview.
Blake Thelen went for 21 points and Kendall Kynett added 18 for the Bison who were coming off of a 62-38 drubbing at the hands of Great Falls CMR in Friday's semifinal. Great Falls led 30-27 at halftime and withstood a 29-game outing from Sentinel's Sam Beighle. Beighle, a Carroll College commit, was named the Gatorade Player of the Year on Thursday morning.
Kyle Torgerson added 14 points for the Bison who will take on Billings Senior at 5 p.m. on Saturday night at MetraPark.
Gaige DeShazer scored 19 points for Sentinel which ends its season at 18-5.