Class C send-off: Big Horns reach state
Boys avenge losses against district rivals, make state for first time in LPHS history
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
For the first time in school history, the Lone Peak High School boys basketball team punched their ticket to the Montana Class C state tournament.
Head coach Al Malinowski said the boys played the maximum number of games possible between the District 12C and Western Division playoff tournaments—10 games in 13 days. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Division and will square off against the top seed from the Southern Division. The state tournament will take place in Billings from March 8-11 at the 10,000-seat First Interstate Bank Arena.
Malinowski spoke on the phone with EBS about the Big Horns’ playoff run. He pointed out that in the two-month regular season, his team played just seven home games. They played 10 games in Butte in less than two weeks, winning seven.
After their first-round divisional win over St. Regis High School, they faced top-seeded Manhattan Christian High School Eagles. The game was tied after the first quarter, but the Big Horns fell behind by halftime.
“We just couldn’t keep up with their depth,” said Malinowski, who began pulling his starters in the second half. “We had to start thinking about our game [at 9:30] the next morning.”
The Eagles defeated the Big Horns and eventually won the divisional championship and enter state with the No. 1 seed from the western division.
With one loss, the Big Horns faced Drummond High School in a loser-goes-home matchup on Saturday morning. The Big Horns extended a four-point halftime lead into a 70-57 victory, behind 19-point efforts by sophomore Isaac Bedway and senior captain Max Romney.
The Big Horns’ win qualified them to play Saturday afternoon against rival West Yellowstone High School. The Wolverines handled the Big Horns in both regular season matchups this season.
In the final minutes, the Big Horns led by three points when a Wolverines’ foul sent Bedway to the line. He nailed both free throws, extending their lead to five. The Wolverines scored a layup-and-one with less than one second remaining, but it was too little, too late.
“It was nice to get another chance at them and get a win this time,” Malinowski said.
Harrison High School Wildcats lost in the divisional championship to Manhattan Christian. Following double-elimination format, a “challenge game” emerged as both the Big Horns and Harrison had one loss and hadn’t faced off in divisional play.
Harrison had defeated the Big Horns by double-digits three times this season, once in the regular season and twice in districts, the tournament before divisionals.
“They had our number,” said Malinowski. “Every time we played them they went on [scoring] runs that we couldn’t seem to stop.”
He said the Wildcats are a well-coached, well-rounded and cohesive team that would have likely been ranked if not for their losses against tough competition in District 12C.
On Monday night, the Big Horns returned to Butte for a rematch with the Wildcats. Malinowski summarized, “they had their [scoring] runs, and we minimized them and had runs of our own.”
With two minutes remaining, the Big Horns led by five. The Wildcats clawed back and hit a 3-pointer to tie with one minute remaining.
Bedway missed an outside shot but Romney—Lone Peak’s all-time leading rebounder—grabbed the offensive board. He dished it back to Bedway who scored with 13 seconds left.
Scrambling in transition, the Wildcats threw an errant pass and lost possession. They were forced to foul senior captain Gus Hammond, sending him to the line where he sealed the deal with a pair of free throws.
“[West Yellowstone and Harrison] ended with our guys going to the line for critical free throws, and hitting both,” Malinowski said. With their 49-45 victory, the Big Horns earned their spot at state.
‘It’s all new to us’
Malinowski said it still sounds funny that state is a reality.
“It’s all new to us,” he said.
He coached the first eight years of Big Horn basketball, before taking a five-year break and resuming for this season. Before Monday’s game, he reached out to some former players for words of encouragement and advice. Before taking the floor with a chance to make state, Malinowski read their text messages to the team.
“I think it shows how much our boys program is really a family,” he said. “Guys came back in December to play in an alumni game… They’ve been following this team all year.”
He added that the team responded well to the support from the Big Sky community.
“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to be where we are,” he said. “But there’s an even bigger opportunity now that we couldn’t have imagined.”
Malinowski said the season was an ideal learning experience.
“We had some close losses [early] that were probably frustrating, but so critical in our ability to learn from them. When you win, it’s easy to forget mistakes. When you lose a couple close games, that play you didn’t make… it sticks in your mind.”
By tournament season, the Big Horns were prepared for tight games, with confidence against tough opponents.
“It was really encouraging to see so much team play, and how much we trusted each other,” Malinowski added. “And our subs off the bench [were] making critical contributions.”
After three straight weeks, he said it will be nice to have some practice time and a break from playoff efforts. Plus, Malinowski has only been focused on the Western Division of Class C; he’ll use this week to size-up six unfamiliar statewide opponents as they earn their spots in the final round of Class C playoffs.
Girls leave Class C with a win
Head coach Loren Bough is proud of his team’s constant improvement: His team finished fifth in conference, fourth in the district tournament, and third in divisionals.
Unfortunately for the Big Horns, only two teams reach state. The girls side of the divisional bracket did not lend to a challenge game, as Twin Bridges High School beat Manhattan Christian in the championship, and Manhattan Christian already beat Lone Peak head-to-head.
“We were the comeback kids,” Bough said. “We were 10 points down in every game we played. In six of them, we came back and won.”
Like the boys, the girls followed a dramatic first-round win with a second-round loss to Manhattan Christian. They stayed alive with a 51-32 victory against Seeley Swan High School, and advanced to a consolation matchup against rival Ennis High School Mustangs.
Ennis had beaten the Big Horns in the consolation matchup of the district tournament. This time, the Mustangs had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Senior captain Jessie Bough hit all six of her free throws and the Big Horns outscored the Mustangs 17-5 in the final quarter, earning them a 41-37 victory.
Coach Bough is excited for the team’s seniors, and for the future of the team. He expects 12 returning players next season.
“The real story is the boys program,” Bough said. “We’re super proud of the boys.”
Ending the Big Horns’ time in Class C with a comeback win, Bough will step back from his coaching role.
“The high school for me and my family has been a 20-year project,” said Bough, who grew up in Class C basketball and played in the state tournament himself. His two goals were to create the best high school in Montana, academically, and build a strong basketball program.
The Big Horns proved the latter at least. They joined the powerhouse Manhattan Christian Eagles as the only schools to send both boys and girls teams to divisionals, and Lone Peak basketball will be tested by Class B competition next season.