Brad Rustan calls it the weight his Bozeman High girls basketball team is dragging.
While the Hawks have shown flashes of excellence — notably in the first half of Saturday’s bout with reigning AA state champion Sentinel — they repeatedly have been beset by sustained stretches of lackluster play. It has cost them multiple wins and has left them scrambling to improve their playoff position as January draws to a close.
The problems cropped up again Wednesday night against visiting Belgrade. They came so early, however, that Bozeman had time to regroup.
Rustan spent the first five minutes of the opening quarter pacing the sideline as the visiting Panthers jumped out to a 12-1 lead. After a quick timeout and some choice words of encouragement, the Hawks answered — in a big way.
They closed out the half with a 26-7 run, utilized some impressive balance to blow things open in the third quarter and cruised to a 62-38 victory, snapping a two-game skid and clinching a series sweep of their rivals.
“It was disappointing because we talked about … coming out really sharp,” Rustan said. “They listened and nodded, and it seemed like we had their attention. I don’t know. We’ve got to quit doing that, basically.”
Bozeman (8-5) turned the ball over on the game’s first possession, leading to a Panthers break the other way and a 3 from guard Dylan Fowler. The Hawks mustered just one field goal and three points in the first five minutes.
Belgrade, meanwhile, appeared poised on both ends of the court. On offense, the Panthers ran their sets through Fowler, who routinely forced the defense to collapse with aggressive drives into the lane; on two occasions, she dished the ball to Tanna Holliday for easy baskets.
Later, Fowler picked off a lazy pass and scored in transition and teammate Taylor Woolman shook free for a score underneath, stretching the lead to 11.
Rustan called a timeout with 2 minutes, 58 seconds on the clock.
“We’re pretty good at showing signs of great things,” Belgrade head coach Shanna Smith said. “That’s what we need to focus on. … Now it’s about putting the whole puzzle together for four quarters, 32 minutes. We have to be able to sustain.”
Her Panthers could not on this night.
After the stoppage in play, the Hawks immediately turned to senior Amy Davis, who backed down a defender and scored off the glass. Trae Roderick followed with a jumper, and Ellie Hawthorne came off the bench to nail the first of her four 3s. Davis finished off the quarter-ending, 10-0 spurt with another conversion from long distance as Bozeman pulled ahead, 13-12.
The Hawks closed out the half with a 9-0 run in which four players scored. They led 27-19 at the break.
“We did what we were capable of (after that slow start), but we’ve got to eliminate that,” Rustan said. “It’s been dogging us all season. It’s the weight we’re dragging, … and we’ve got to unlock the chain, get some bolt cutters or whatever.”
There was little for Rustan to criticize in the second half. Fowler nailed a runner to momentarily pull Belgrade to within 27-21 in the opening moments of the third, but Bozeman then scored on three consecutive possessions to extend its advantage to 34-21. It outscored the Panthers 20-8 in a quarter in which it hit four from long distance — two from Hawthorne and one each from Molly March and Jacey Delaney.
By the final minutes of the fourth, the Hawks had emptied their bench.
“I never question their commitment or effort, but a lot of times I think it just comes down to fatigue. That can be mental fatigue, too,” Smith said. “It’s always a challenge playing Bozeman, but we look forward to every challenge tossed our way. What we take away from this is that we’re not that far out of it with anybody. We’ll take confidence in that and focus on laying it on the line and … continuing to fight and claw our way through games.”
Fowler hit three 3s and wound up with 18 in the losing effort for Belgrade, which visits Lewiston on Saturday.
Davis finished with 19 points and Roderick and Hawthorne each scored 12 for the Hawks, who hit the road tonight to take on Eastern AA foe Butte.
“I’m working on lineups and still trying to figure some things out,” Rustan said. “We’re scrapping to work our way out of the middle of the conference, … so here’s the deal: You better play hard and be mentally tough. There’s no excuse for getting on the floor in that uniform and not playing hard.”
Jon Maletz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmaletz.