HAMILTON - There was most definitely a Central theme to the first two games of the State A girls' basketball tournament Thursday afternoon at Dale Berry Court.
After fifth-ranked Billings Central knocked off Northwestern A champion Columbia Falls 65-52 in the tournament opener, Butte Central outlasted Southwestern A upstart Frenchtown 49-30 in first-round action.
The run-and-gun Rams (16-6) secured their spot in Friday evening's 6:30 p.m. semifinal behind the workmanlike effort of junior forward Jackie Elliot, who torched the Wildkats to the tune of 32 points, five rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.
"I can't really say anything but the fact that Billings Central is flat-out fast," said Columbia Falls head coach Dan Fairbank, whose team slipped to 14-7. "I watched film and I knew they were fast, but it's much more impressive to watch live than it is on film because they're just really, really fast."
Billings Central will face 13-8 Butte Central for a spot in Saturday's 8 p.m. championship game after the Maroons cleaned up their act following a sloppy first half that saw them lead by only three at the break.
"Our girls were extremely nervous... a little uptight," said Butte Central head coach Meg Murphy, whose team is playing in its first state tournament since 1982. "It's the first time any of them have ever been to a state tournament and there's a lot of pressure just from the city itself saying how it's been a long time since Central has been there. I thought we came out and we just couldn't get into it."
But the Maroons pulled away late with a solid second half, getting nine points from junior Quinn Peoples and eight more from classmate Lexie Murphy over the final 16 minutes.
The Broncs (13-11), making their first trip to state since moving up from the Class B ranks in 2003, will meet Columbia Falls in the first loser-out contest Friday at 12:30 p.m.
Billings Central 65, Columbia Falls 52
The Rams got out of the gate quickly, pressuring the Columbia Falls offense all the way up the court as they assumed a 14-7 lead midway through the first quarter.
The Wildkats responded in the blocks behind the sister tandem of junior Kayla DeWit and senior Kelsey DeWit, who combined to score 13 points in the first quarter. That helped Columbia Falls pull within 16-14 by the start of the second.
But Kayla DeWit was shut out of the scoring column in the second quarter and her older sister managed just a pair of free throws as the Rams took a seven-point lead into halftime.
"I thought we played pretty good," said Billings Central head coach Jeff Malby of the Rams' first-half performance. "When you haven't played since the Saturday before last and you have all that time off, it takes a while to get your game on and your game legs back. I thought we just kind of hung in there and then just started to peck away at them."
Kayla DeWit, showing little pain from a sore ankle she rolled in the Wildkats' divisional title game win Feb. 27, got going in the third and scored 11 of her team-high 25 points in the period.
But Columbia Falls could only shave one point off its deficit entering the fourth quarter, where Billings Central iced it at the line by going 12 for 12.
Gutsy senior guard Austin Hanser scored 15 and snagged 11 boards for the Rams, who won the rebound battle 36-25.
Kelsey DeWit added 16 points for the Wildkats.
"It took a lot of communication today to be able to slow them down in their game," Elliott said. "Then we got some good transitional buckets because we run. That's our game."
Bil. Central 16 11 18 19 - 64
Col. Falls 14 6 19 13 - 52
BILLINGS CENTRAL - Jackie Elliott 9-17 12-15 32, Brenna Chilton 1-7 0-0 3, Austin Hanser 5-12 3-6 15, Maggie Powell 0-1 4-4 4, Marissa Stanton 1-5 4-4 6, Shae Chilton 1-6 1-2 4, Morgan Seeley 0-0 0-0 0, Miranda Rabold 0-1 0-0 0, Katie Cummins 0-0 0-0 0, Rayanne Frazier 0-1 0-0 0, Kayla Lucas 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Hanser 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-50 24-31 64.
COLUMBIA FALLS - Dani Gilley 1-2 2-4 4, Ashli Fairbank 1-1 2-4 4, Kayla DeWit 11-24 3-3 25, Shay Grilley 1-5 0-0 3, Kelsey DeWit 5-11 6-19 16, Brooke Cady 0-3 0-0 0, Jonna Werner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-46 13-20 52.
3-point goals - Billings Central 6-22 (Elliott 2-3, A. Hanser 2-7), Columbia Falls 1-4 (Grilley 1-4). Total fouls - Billings Central 15, Columbia Falls 21. Fouled out - Gilley. Rebounds - Billings Central 36 (A. Hanser 11), Columbia Falls 25 (Ka. DeWit 9). Turnovers - Billings Central 17, Columbia Falls 15.
Butte Central 49, Frenchtown 30
Peoples and Murphy were just too much for the Broncs to handle in the second half after Frenchtown did its best to stay with the Maroons through the opening 16 minutes.
"I don't think they wore us down as much as we started doing some different things than we were doing in the first half that were working so effectively for us," said Broncs head coach Patrick Hiller. "We started jumping out on shooters who hadn't hit shots. It didn't make any sense for us to show out when they hadn't hit a three."
Butte Central got an inside bunny from Murphy at the end of the third quarter to take a 33-26 lead.
Then it was Peoples who took over, scoring seven in the final period, including a back-breaking three-point play with 4:37 left that gave the Maroons 42-30 lead.
Brynne Kambich supported Peoples and Murphy with 11 points. Peoples pulled down a game-high eight rebounds.
Brittany Belker scored 14 and Sarah Lester had 13 for Frenchtown, which spent a little extra time in the locker room after it was over.
"We definitely thought we had a shot to play with these guys," Hiller said. "We still don't think they're a better basketball team than us. We've had games like this all season where we just don't play well, things just don't go well and that just happens. Really I think that's all that happened today."
Butte Central 8 12 13 16 - 49
Frenchtown 6 11 9 8 - 34
BUTTE CENTRAL - Kacie McKeon 1-6 2-2 4, Ashley Kasperick 0-0 0-0 0, Taylure Svejkovsky 0-0 0-2 0, Kourtney Kambich 1-2 0-0 2, Brynne Kambich 4-7 3-4 11, Breanne Krzan 0-0 0-0 0, McKenzie Doherty 0-0 0-1 0, Lexie Murphy 6-16 0-1 12, Hannah Stajcar 0-3 2-4 2, Quinn Peoples 4-9 6-6 14, Mariah Cooney 0-0 0-0 0, Theresa Banks 1-4 2-2 4. Totals 17-47 15-22 49.
FRENCHTOWN - Jaylynn Garrison 0-2 0-1 0, Keller Leishman 0-2 0-0 0, Angel Lowry 0-1 0-0 0, Sarah Lester 4-8 2-4 13, Shelby Jutila 2-6 1-2 5, Kelsey Fallis 0-4 0-2 0, Emma Oostdyk 0-0 0-0 0, Jesse Tucker 0-0 0-1 0, Brittany Belker 4-14 6-6 14, Brittnee Richardson 1-2 0-0 2, Abby Indreland 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 11-39 5-12 30.
3-point goals - Butte Central 0-10, Frenchtown 3-11 (Lester 3-5). Total fouls - Butte Central 16, Frenchtown 19. Fouled out - none. Rebounds - Butte Central 26 (Peoples 8), Frenchtown 32 (Lester 6, Jutila 6, Belker 6). Turnovers - Butte Central 18, Frenchtown 26.