The Locomotives will join Billings Central as the Eastern A’s representatives at the state tournaments. The girls play this weekend in Butte. Central is the conference’s top seed and will play Columbia Falls in the first round. Laurel will play Frenchtown.
The boys tournament isn’t until next weekend in Billings. The Rams will play Frenchtown, while Laurel will play Columbia Falls.
Before I work up some previews for this weekend’s tournaments, here are some quick thoughts from the Eastern A divisional tournament:
1. Billings Central’s boys seem to be peaking at the right time.
It felt like the Rams went through an up-and-down season, not stringing together consistent performances. The fact is, though, that Laurel is the only Class A team to beat them this year.
Central avenged those two losses by beating Laurel in the championship, a game that Daniel Meyer had a huge impact on in the early going with his scoring in the paint.
The most impressive aspect of Central’s play in the tournament, though, was Jacob Stanton at point guard. Since I saw Central play early in the year, I thought they needed better guard play. Well, Stanton provided that last weekend. He was terrific Friday night against Glendive in the semifinal game. He really controlled the game with his penetration and ability to find open teammates.
If Stanton plays next weekend like he did last weekend, the Rams will certainly be a tough out at state.
2. Laurel’s boys will be fine.
You always wonder how a team will respond when it hits some adversity. The Locomotives ran the table for much of the year, but have now lost two of their last four games.
Those losses came against Class AA Billings Skyview and the aforementioned Central team, so they’re not too worrisome.
However, the Locomotives aren’t playing with the same offensive aggression they did when we first saw them in December. They were attacking opposing defenses then and shooting lights out from the perimeter. With Brett Thompson, Bryce Herman, Taylor Maida, Evan Jones, and crew, the Locomotives still have plenty of weapons offensively. They just need to find their rhythm.
3. Central’s girls looked fantastic in their win over Hardin in the championship.
I underestimated Allie Lucas this year. Moving her off the ball – she plays the two-guard spot instead of the point this year – was a brilliant move by coach Jeff Malby. Lucas is a bulldog out there, gives 110 percent effort all game long, and really makes life difficult for her opponents.
She can attack off the dribble or hit the 3-point shot, but I think her biggest asset is her defense and tenacity. She gets a ton of steals and really forces opposing offenses into some tough spots.
Justyn Juhl really played well in the championship, too. She spent more time battling in the paint than she did in the previous night’s semifinal, and it paid off. She rebounded well, got easy buckets, and got to the foul line.
All in all, I thought Saturday’s championship was the best game I’ve seen Central play this year. Beyond Lucas and Juhl, the rest of the team gave solid contributions as well. As to be expected with a Malby-coached team, the Rams are peaking at the end of the year.
4. Laurel has progressed over the course of the season, too.
Early in the year, the Locomotives looked pretty bad in a home loss to Hardin, as the Bulldogs are a tough matchup for them.
But in the challenge game on Monday, Laurel set the tone and really executed well on the offensive end, which limited some of things Hardin tried to do. I specifically remember a couple of possessions in the third quarter where Laurel was able to run their offense and get wide-open lay-ups.
In the first instance, the Locos patiently ran their flex offense for approximately 45 seconds. They made crisp passes on the perimeter and set solid screens, springing Leslie Gappa open for the lay-in.
A couple of possessions later, the Locos executed a well-timed pick-and-roll on the right wing. This time it was Abbie Lohof free underneath.
You didn’t see that patience or execution early in the year. Laurel was able to get a lot of open looks against Hardin, and would have really opened the game up if they had shot the ball just a little better.
5. Glendive’s boys should be really good next year.
People said this about the Red Devils at last year’s Eastern A divisional tournament, too, but I’m not surprised they’re still playing catch-up with Central and Laurel. The Devils are close – as evidenced by their three losses to Laurel by a combined six points – and definitely could get there next year.
They still have a bunch of players coming back next year, including 6-foot-10 center Bryden Boehning. There was a stretch when he took over against Laurel and really controlled the game. He needs to get stronger and more assertive, but the potential is there for him and his team to be a state contender in 2014.