In a cross-county battle of No. 1-ranked teams that had no bearing on the standings, Billings Skyview and Laurel fought all the way, neither giving much of an inch.
The Falcons eventually emerged with a 51-46 victory in double overtime in front of a raucous crowd on senior night at the Skyview gym.
It was the second down-to-the-wire thriller the teams played this season, and the Falcons’ victory served as comeuppance for a two-point loss earlier in the year at Laurel. This time Skyview, christened as the new No. 1 team in the Class AA rankings early last week, was able to outmaneuver Laurel, the top-ranked team in Class A.
Skyview improved to 16-2, while Laurel lost for the first time all year, falling to 17-1.
“Tonight we came out and played better defense,” said Falcons guard Matt Fuhrman. “We didn’t necessarily play good offense, but the defense and rebounding really helped us. Last time, that wasn’t the case. We didn’t come out ready to play. But tonight we did.”
Laurel’s Evan Jones made a spinning shot in the lane to tie the game 43-43 at the end of the first overtime. But Skyview, playing for the second straight night without leading scorer Daine Muller, took command in the second OT.
Josiah Running Crow got it started with a quick basket underneath, and then the Falcons shut the door defensively. Laurel was unable to get many good looks at the basket in the second overtime, and didn’t score until Brett Thompson banked in a futile 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Running Crow ripped down four defensive rebounds in the second overtime for a Skyview team that dominated the glass. Running Crow, one of seven Falcon seniors honored Saturday, finished with game-highs of 12 points and 12 boards.
Fuhrman and Alex Zacher combined to make six free throws to put the game away in the second OT, making up for some poor shooting from the foul line earlier.
“They scored quick right off the jump,” said Laurel coach Pat Hansen. “Even in the first overtime they scored quick and we had to play from behind.
“The opportunities just weren’t there for us. I thought Josiah did a (great) job on the defensive glass. We took some contested shots and some quick shots, and he made sure we weren’t going to get any second chances.”
Defensively, Skyview did a better job against Thompson. In the previous meeting between the teams on Jan. 5, Thompson went off for 29 points, including the game-winning shot at the buzzer to lift the Locomotives to a 50-48 victory.
Fuhrman, Zacher and Cole Sowden primarily defended Thompson on Saturday, and limited him to 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
“In the first game he was getting everything he wanted,” Fuhrman said. “But our defense stepped up tonight.”
The Falcons made just 13 of 26 from the foul line, and it nearly cost them the game. But Zacher twice made both ends of a double-bonus as time wound down, and Fuhrman went 1 for 2 on two occasions late, including once when he stole the ball with 27 seconds left.
“Our defense was good all night long. We didn’t give them many easy looks,” said Skyview coach Toby Hill. “Our offense was a little sluggish still -- they play really good defense -- and we didn’t make enough free throws to stretch our lead like we wanted to. But in that second overtime, we were able to make a couple.”
The Falcons have a chance to sew up the top seed in the Eastern AA and an automatic bid to the state tournament when they travel to Great Falls this coming weekend.
For Laurel, the postseason begins Friday with the Eastern A tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
The Locomotives had a chance to finish the regular season undefeated, but came up short.
“There’s no shame in losing to Skyview. They’re a great team,” Hansen said. “Our non-conference schedule was outstanding. To be 18-0 would have been great, but being 17-1 is also great.
“Our kids battled. They got down, but they came back to get it to overtime and gave themselves a chance to win. That proved to me that they didn’t care if their 17-0 or 0-17, they’re just trying to play second-by-second and execute down the stretch.”
NOTES: Skyview’s Muller was again held out of the lineup due to a strained calf muscle. Hill said Muller is day-to-day, but will try to be ready to play in Great Falls. Muller is the leading scorer in Class AA at 21.7 points per game.