By Bruce Sayler
BELGRADE — Butte Central converted 15 of 16 free throws in the fourth quarter to save a 48-39 victory over Lewistown Thursday night, capping the first round of the state Class A high school girls’ basketball tournament at the Special Events Center.
The 22-0 Maroons’ only field goal in the last frame was a 3-point basket by Mollie Peoples. Kloie Thatcher made seven of eight foul shots and Peoples hit six of six, and Emily St. John two of two.
The effort sent the BC girls to the Friday 8:30 p.m. semifinal round game against old rival Dillon, a 32-30 upset winner over Billings Central Thursday. Bracket
Butte Central is seeking its fourth state title in the Maroons girls’ basketball program, the last being won in 2011 with runner-up finishes following in 2012 and last year. Defending champion Hamilton did not advance to this year’s tournament.
The free throw show was a needed performance for the BC girls as they shot just a little over 19 percent from the field for the game.
“We didn’t board,” head coach Meg Murphy said about Butte Central’s struggles. “We talked about winning the battle of the boards and we didn’t do that tonight.”
Lewistown had clawed to within 34-31 of the Maroons with 5 minutes, 14 seconds let in the game. Thatcher then missed a free throw and made one, then came back to the line 15 seconds later to net both attempts. Kyra Fleharty downed a pair of freebies for the Eagles, then Peoples hit her trey for a 40-33 BC margin. Carley Carpenter hooped a shot for Lewistown, then Butte Central marched to the charity stripe and connected on eight straight free throws — four by Peoples, two by Thatcher and two by St. John — to finally wrap up the win.
“Mollie Peoples hit a big shot, then some free throws for us,” Murphy said. “People expect us to win by 20, 30 points, but we have to battle. I think the girls were a little rusty (for not having played in 10 days) and then had to wait around all day before we played at 8:30.
“I also think we let some calls that we might have thought we should have gotten — and didn’t — go to our heads. That sometimes happens with 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds. The bottom line, though, is the girls found a way to win.”
Thatcher finished with 16 points and Peoples with 15 to lead the win. St. John had nine points, Sierra Pica six, Kailee Murphy two, and Kate Ossello, Taylor Wahl and Megan Michelotti all played.
Pica swatted away three shots on important defensive plays in the fourth quarter. She pulled down 10 rebounds to go with four blocks for the game. Thatcher snared six steals.
“Our guards passed up too many shots tonight,” coach Murphy assessed. “Their percentages of scoring are higher than their assists ratio.”
Butte Central fired out to a fast start with a 9-0 run against Lewistown. Pica scored the first points of the game on a short drive to the hoop, then Thatcher canned a 3-point basket and Pica followed with two made free throws. Thatcher’s steal and layin made it a 9-0 game before the Eagles reached the scoreboard with a Carpenter meshed foul shot.
Lewistown closed the quarter on a 4-0 run as Fleharty tallied from just inside the long-distance stripe and Hannah Hayes scored off an inbounds pass from Carpenter. The BC lead was 14-7 at the quarter break.
The Eagles scored four in a row to begin the second quarter and close to within 14-11 of Butte Central. Tara Olson’s 3-pointer was key in what was an 8-0 run started in the last two minutes of the first frame. The Maroons didn’t score in the second quarter until Peoples caged a free throw with 5:39 left in the half.
The suddenly cold-shooting BC girls failed to connect on a field goal in the quarter, but did knock down five free throws to maintain a 19-13 lead at intermission.
Lewistown pulled even nearer in the third quarter, getting to 30-27 heading into the fourth. Two charity tosses made by Hayes and a short jumper by Jaree Mane brought the Eagles to the smaller gap in the last minute of the third.
The Maroons led by no more than seven points in the third.
The Eagles refused to go away.
The poking, swatting, tipping, handsy, physical Lewistown defense gave the usually sure ball-handling BC players fits and tilted them off their game. Second nature eroded into something requiring sometimes too much thought.
The BC girls, though, persevered and found other ways to defeat an opponent once the shooting touches betrayed them.
Coach Murphy said the Lewistown 2-3 zone defense should not have been so troublesome.
“We spent large amounts of time on zones in practice,” she said. “But we didn’t take care of the ball, tonight.”
The Eagles are 7-16 for the season and will play 19-3 Billings Central at 2:30 Friday in a loser-out game. Lewistown leaders against Butte Central were Aijah Ros, who fouled out with nine points, and Fleharty with eight.
“Winning this first game (of the tournament) is huge,” Meg Murphy said. “The kids can sleep in late in a bed instead of having to catch a bus at 7 in the morning and being up all day.
“I just told the kids that only four teams are playing (Friday night) and we’re one of them.”
LEWISTOWN (7-16) – Hanna Hayes 2 2-2 6, Valerie Kolstad 0 0-0 0, Ajiah Ros 3 3-4 9, Tara Olson 1 0-0 3, Carley Carpenter 2 3-4 7, Paige Towne 0 0-0 0, Kyra Fleharty 3 2-4 8, Karlie Southworth 0 0-0 0, Jaree Mane 3 0-0 6. Totals: 14 10-14 39.
BUTTE CENTRAL (22-0) – Kloie Thatcher 4 7-8 16, Mollie Peoples 3 7-8 15, Sierra Pica 1 4-4 6, Kailee Murphy 0 2-4 2, Emily St. John 3 3-4 9, Kate Ossello 0-0 0-1 0, Taylor Wahl 0 0-0 0, Megan Michelotti 0 0-0 0. Totals: 11 23-28 48.
Lewistown 7 6 14 12 – 39
Butte Central 14 5 11 18 – 48
3-point goals: Lew 1 (Olson), BC 3 (Peoples 2, Thatcher 1). Fouls: Lew 21, BC 12. Fouled out: Ros. Technicals: none.