Victory March

BOYS BASKETBALL: District champions

BELGRADE — Before the season began, the Herders were certainly talking the talk. Now, they’re walking the walk.

After dropping the final two games of the regular season, the Sweet Grass County boys’ basketball team stormed through their two games in the District 5B tournament and were crowned champions after a 60-49 win against topseeded and third-ranked Three Forks on Feb. 17 at the Belgrade Special Events Center.

Junior Blake Finn went for 16 points and brought the district trophy back to an excitable sea of blue after the announcer affirmed the Herders would be the top-seed out of their district in the Southern B Divisional tournament March 1-3 in Billings.

Big man Ethan Bullock made his presence felt down low with 15 points. Meanwhile the Herders did what they failed to do last week against Park High — close out the contest.

An electric start put the Herders up 31-17 at halftime. The Herders wouldn’t miss their shots and challenged everything the Wolves put up. Head coach Dan Smart said that made all the difference between Saturday night’s win and the two losses the Herders faced earlier this season.

“In both games we played [in the regular season], they got up big on us,” Smart said. “It took us out of our game. But by getting up big on them, it took them out of their game and what they would normally do. That was a big factor.”

But when a team is ranked No. 3 in the state, it does everything well, even if it doesn’t start out that way.

In the second half, and more so the fourth quarter, the shots started to fall for the Wolves, and they were able to find a groove, reducing a 20-point lead to just seven with under a minute to play.

But if there was one facet of the game the Herders refused to relinquish, it was defense.

Time and time again, in the waning seconds of the district finale, the Herders got the stops they needed and sent a national free-throw champion in Finn to the line, where he sank most (3-for-4) of his shots.

“I don’t think we played to our potential all year, but we showed that we did tonight,” Finn said. “Everybody played so well. But we were a little rushed and in the spotlight sort of thing. Then we slowed down and made some free throws, but we’ve got to work on that. All in all, we finished.”

It’s understandable to get caught in the moment when the lead seems insurmountable, and the season in the review mirror featured just four wins and a two-and-done district tournament.

In 2017, the Herders lost a handful of close games by one, two or three points. This year, for the most part, they were able to close the door on those contests.

A week ago against Park High, in a 53-50 overtime loss, the Herders were dealt a sharp reminder of what it feels like to go down on a final shot. In the upset loss at Manhattan the previous night, they realized they weren’t going to win games shooting dismally against mid-district teams.

When the opportunity to close the door came in the finals of the district tournament, they did so with emphasis.

“When we lost to Manhattan, our guards didn’t play well,” Smart said. “They weren’t patient. We didn’t do things we were capable of. So we worked on some of those things. From this point forward, we can’t have those sloppy games. We knew this game meant nothing; we had second place all sewn up. But from this point forward, it means everything in the world.”

A district title was part of the grand plan at the beginning of the year. The Herders exorcized their demons appropriately throughout the season, seeing a 13-win season come to life. Now, they’ll work on carrying everything into Billings, where they will meet St. Labre at 3 p.m. on March 1 in the first round of the Southern B Divisional tournament.