BILLINGS — Throw anything you might think you know about the game of basketball out the window when Billings Central and Hardin clash on the court.
And strap in, because you'll be in for a wild ride, too.
After both the Hardin and Central boys and girls basketball teams combined for five overtimes back on Jan. 6, the two met once again on Saturday, with thrillers defining the second meeting once again but with a different result. Central swept both games as the girls won 49-47 while the boys had to gut out another game of extras, winning 81-78 in double-overtime in front of a crowd of around 4,000 at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
"I told (Hardin coach) Andrew (Round Face), 'Hey, we're even,'" Central coach Jim Stergar said jokingly with a laugh. "Two great teams going at it like that back-and-forth, that's exactly what you grow up wanting to play in, games like that, at the Metra. Great crowd. We respect the heck out of what Hardin does and what they can do and I think they do the same for us. It's a great respect for both teams and that's nice to see that."
Hardin won the first meeting between these two 97-87 in triple-overtime. Four Central players scored in double-digits while five Hardin players did such. Seth Sasich led the Rams with 18 points, shooting 6 for 11 from 3-point range, while Cade Herriford and Chrishon Dixon each added 17. Sam Gray scored 16, including the buzzer-beating floater to send the game into overtime. Dixon, who had a triple-double against Hardin last time, had 14 assists and 7 rebounds.
"It's always nice to knock down shots but it's always thanks to Chrishon passing to me and setting me up for them," Herriford said. "I'm just glad I can finish them."
Herriford and Sasich caught fire early for Central. Both contributed nine points apiece in the first half while Gray had 10 of his to put the Rams up by as much as 12 in the quarter. However, a David Evans layup and Famous Lefthand 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer trimmed the deficit to only seven points.
"I just knew that I had to come up big and hit some big shots," Sasich said. "Last week I struggled with my shot and it felt good to see them go through tonight."
From there, the teams kept trading buckets. Trae Hugs came out firing, knocking down two straight threes to keep Hardin within striking distance. The Bulldogs trailed all the way into the fourth quarter, when Andrew House knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 52-51 with 6:35 left in the game. The lead was short-lived though as Herriford responded immediately with a three of his own.
House finished with 15 points, 13 of which came in the final quarter. With the game tied 63-63, House knocked down a layup with about a minute left to give Hardin the lead again. Dixon followed up with two free throws, but House responded with a pair of his own to give a two-point cushion to the Bulldogs with 28 seconds remaining. Gray then knocked down his game-tying layup.
"You can't really get ready for (games like this). You just have to know that it's going to be a loud crowd and Stergar blows his whistle repeatedly at practice to try and prepare us for it," Sasich added with a laugh.
Central got a pair of threes from Sasich and Liam Clancy in the first overtime, while Lefthand had two baskets for Hardin, but just missed the game-winning shot that sent the game into a second overtime.
There, Central jumped to a 6-0 run, including another Sasich three. Hardin responded with a Cayden Redfield 3-pointer and Hugs basket, but after Joe Byorth and Herriford each knocked down a free throw to make 81-78, Hardin was unable to get a shot off in time thanks to some suffocating defense from the Rams.
"They have great shooters. Chrishon does a great job penetrating and making defenses collapse," Round Face said. "I'm glad the (loss) happened now. I'd rather have it happen now than us going into divisionals or state and having to deal with it then. I think it gave us a reality check. I want to see how the boys respond."
The No. 2 ranked Bulldogs drop to 12-1, while the No. 4 Rams jump to 10-4. Lefthand finished with a game-high 19, Hugs had 17, including four 3-pointers, Evans scored 13 and Redfield added 11.
"Oh it's crazy," Herriford added. "I was like, 'Here we go again.' Repeat of last time. Pretty much just have to keep it slow and just to stay calm, stay in the game, and keep going. It just feels good after last time and that awful feeling of losing. This one is a real booster."
Central girls 49, Hardin 47
The opening game didn't quite go into overtime, but it was close.
Hardin had the ball with 4.6 seconds left in the game, and passed the ball up the court quickly, finding a wide-open Sharmayne Hardy, who took a last-second 3-point attempt that was no good sending the Rams into celebration.
"The girls were actually just talking about deja vu," Central coach Jetton Ailes said with a laugh. "Those are just situations that you have to keep practicing. They got it, and luckily for us, it didn't fall this time."
The girls game went into double-overtime last time, and Hardin made a furious four-point comeback in the final seconds that ended with a 3-pointer from Karissa DuShane as the buzzer sounded to send the game into the first extra period. Hardin won that game 66-64.
Sophomore guard Zoie Althoff came off the bench and provided a driving spark for the Rams, leading the game with 18 points. She scored seven of her points in the first quarter before accounting for nine more in the fourth.
"Zoie's just a spark. She's a great kid, great athlete and she just does it all," Ailes said. "You can count on her to show up every night and give it her all. We're so fortunate to have a kid like her on our team, for sure."
Althoff knocked down six free throws in the final quarter as the Rams were trying to fend off another Hardin comeback. She scored eight straight points for the Rams in just over four minutes as Central had a 48-44 lead with 24.5 seconds left. A three from Marie Five closed the gap to one, but Althoff knocked down one more free throw before Hardy's final attempt.
"I just try to stay calm and make it," she laughed about the pressure of a late-game free throw. "It's definitely tough, especially with a loud crowd. It's difficult but you have to do it.
"My heart dropped (after Hardy's three attempt) but then we were fine. It's definitely a big win."
Hardin led through the entire first half, and didn't give up the lead until Tess Hansen knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:45 left in the third quarter. The Bulldogs grabbed the lead after a Hardy basket at the start of the fourth quarter, and the teams would trade baskets, and late-game drama, from there.
Central improves to 8-6 while the No. 4 ranked Bulldogs drop to 11-2. Isabelle Erickson added 11 points for Central. Hardy finished with 13 for the Bulldogs.
"We had our peaks and valleys but Hardin's always going to give you that one last push and we weathered the storm and last time we got a little bit rattled," Ailes said. "Our mental toughness was definitely there tonight."