Junior jolt lifts Herders to divisionals

SOUTHERN B DIVISIONAL BASKETBALL: Herders earn top seed out of District 5B

When the Herders step onto the court at the MetraPark Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings on March 1, it won’t be the first time they do so in more than a decade. There hasn’t been some outstanding drought for the team from Sweet Grass County High School. They’re just two years removed from lacing up in the divisional round.

But for a group of juniors that’s bolstered the team all season long, it will be the first time they have a chance to shine on the divisional stage.

For the first time since 2016, the Herders will have their sights set on downing the Braves from St. Labre. The last time these two teams faced was in the first round of divisionals, March 3, 2016. The Herders came out victorious with a 61-47 victory and found themselves a point shy of winning the whole tournament.

But players have come and gone — for both teams — since then, and the matchup will prove to be anything but the same. However, the Herders seem to have the edge, on paper and on tape.

“We’ve got probably five or six games of tape on them, so we know what to expect,” said head coach Dan Smart. “They’ve got one guy listed at 6-[foot]-2, so we should have a pretty good height advantage down low.”

The Herders will sport Ethan Bullock and Jacob Roberts, as they have, for most of the season down on the block. Both have proven to be pivotal players, especially Bullock in his junior year campaign.

Maturity has been Bullock’s biggest strength when knowing what to do with the ball — whether it’s an extra pass, dribble or just taking the ball straight up — this season.

Heading into the district tournament, Bullock was listed as the districts 10th-leading scorer with 198 points and 11 points per game. In the two district games, he helped lead the Herders past Whitehall and No. 3 Three Forks with 11 and 15 points, respectively.

But the inside game won’t be the only place to make a living against the Braves (11-7), who were the third-seeded team out of District 3 two weeks ago.

Both perimeter shooters – and juniors — Blake Finn and Kell Schwers will be able to assist in triples if the night’s right.

Schwers is the leading scorer for Big Timber this year with 219 points heading into the district tournament (ranking eighth among all district players). Finn has 179 points, prior to districts, which ranked him 13th in the league. But what Finn also sports is a third-best district free-throw percentage at 71.11 percent.

Despite being as solid as can be from the line, he mentioned after the aforementioned win against Three Forks, shooting from the charity stripe could’ve been better.

To add to his line, Finn is also the fourth-most lethal 3-point shooter in the league with 34 made 3s, while Schwers is tied for fifth with 33. Big Timber is the only school in District 5 to have two of the top five perimeter shooters in the league.

Junior jolt

Smart said this group of Herders often mimics that of the group that went on a state title run three years ago.

The Herders sported a strong supporting cast from their juniors in 2014-15, and the same goes for this year’s team.

“They’re really comparable to three years ago. The junior class was strong like this year’s, “ Smart said. “A few of them went and checked out everything...they ooo’d and ahh’d, but now, they get a chance to actually play in the games.”

Smart said the Herders are on practices 50-53 this season, and at that point, it can get a little stale.

While the Herders have done their best to keep practices upbeat and remained focused, there’s really only so much to be done.

It’s been two weeks since the Herders have seen realtime action, and every year Smart debates with himself on what’s actually better: A bye week before divisionals or the state tournament.

The jury is still out on that decision.

Nevertheless, heading into this week’s divisional tournament, it won’t be any cakewalk to get back to the state tournament. The Herders hit the Southern B bracket with three of the top four teams in the state in No. 2 Colstrip (19-0), No. 3 Three Forks (16-4) and No. 4 Roundup (19-1).

Keys to a win

“We’ve got to take care of the ball. If we can do that, we can beat them,” Smart said. “They like to get up and down the floor…they’re pretty good at that. But if we can just take care of the ball, that’ll be good.”

Turnovers have plagued the Herders in some ‘could-have’ wins this season, even late. But when the Herders limit the give aways, and turn opponents mistakes into transition points, the odds are in their favor. By slowing down the Braves’ offense, the Herders will have a better opportunity of getting set in their respective defense and be able to do just that.

The Herders tip-off against the Braves at 3 p.m., March 1 in Billings. Win, and the Herders move on to Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal game against the winner of Lodge Grass and Joliet. Lose, and they’ll face the loser of that game at 10:30 a.m. Friday.