BOZEMAN — "Ladies and gentlemen this is the first time in MHSA history that two brothers have faced off in a championship ballgame."
If that doesn't add hype to a basketball game, nothing will.
Those words were announced to an almost full-capacity crowd at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Saturday evening when Jae and Trae Hugs were introduced in the starting lineups right before Jae's Billings Central Rams and Trae's Hardin Bulldogs were to tip off for the State A championship.
The brothers embraced at half-court to a rousing applause from the crowd, and Jae, who played two years at Hardin before transferring to Central, went on to hug his father, Justin, an assistant coach for the Bulldogs.
Already the emotions were flowing between two opponents who know each other so well, and the game itself hadn't even started yet.
"Some people didn't know that that's what is going on in this game," Central coach Jim Stergar said. "We needed to get those two guys lined up together and get them last. It was just a special moment for Jae and Trae and their dad and mom, and just to see that, they should be proud of what those two kids did as far as competing. Probably not going to see that too often."
Hardin and Central cranked out three basketball games to remember this year, adding layers to what has been a budding rivalry between two programs at the top of their game. After splitting two regular season matches that combined for five overtimes, the Bulldogs took the third contest with a 47-43 victory over the Rams for their first boys basketball state championship since 1997.
"It's really awesome, it really is," Hardin senior David Evans said. "It's an honor. We came out fighting and we came out on top and it's very awesome. It feels great."
Evans added, "I still can't really process it. I'm a state champ and I still don't even know what's going on. It was very emotional. It was great, tears of joy. 'We won it! We won it!' And we started what we finished."
The emotion surrounding the game was ever-present thanks to a plethora of storylines. The one that trumped all was the Hugs brothers, Jae the senior and Trae the sophomore, and both starters. Added into the mix earlier this week was the news of Chloe Lai, a Billings fourth-grader who passed away from the flu, who the Rams were dedicating their state tournament to. The same day they visited Lai's classmates, the Rams traveled to Bozeman and earned a first-round upset of Hamilton, a team that was undefeated and the No. 1 seed from the Western A.
Then there were the previous games themselves. Hardin won the first meeting in a triple-overtime thriller in early January, a night the girls matchup also went double overtime. The Central teams won the second bout in February, but the boys needed two more overtimes to decide a winner.
So, when both Hardin and Central advanced to the title game on Saturday, there was plenty to talk about.
When the horn sounded and the Bulldogs were crowned champs, fans began shooting silly-string and throwing confetti in celebration. The players rushed to the bench to greet their teammates and coaches in jubilation. The Fieldhouse was loud.
"The feeling hasn't even really sunk in yet, I'm still worried about the game," Hardin's other senior starter, Codi Small, said. "I just can't even explain the feeling right now."
Small doesn't score much, but his layup with 2:12 left gave the Bulldogs a 42-41 lead and they never trailed again.
"I saw everybody was spread out so I tried taking it to the hole and it worked out," Small said. "It's the best feeling in the world. Our fans have been with us all season long and to have them join us on the court like that and be apart of it was something really to the whole team. "
What may have been the most striking was during the handshake lines both teams took their time in congratulating one another. Through tears of joy and pain, Central and Hardin players exchanged hugs and words in as good a display of sportsmanship as any coach or fan might ever see. Hardin coach Andrew Round Face and Stergar spoke for a minute through a long handshake and embraced. Then, when Central was presented the second-place trophy, the arena erupted with cheers from both fan bases, and vice versa when Evans took hold of the state championship trophy.
"That's a great team that we lost to," Stergar said. "It wasn't as high-scoring as probably people would've like to see, but I think these kids and both these teams are the two best teams that you can put against each other. We're proud to be here and I'm proud of our guys and I'm proud of that Hardin team. That's a fun team to watch and I enjoy competing against those guys.
"It's been a special season for us. This is my 20th season as a head coach and this has to be one of the most special teams as far as leadership is concerned."
Hardin fans swarmed the court after to embrace emotional and emphatic players. Gathered in a massive circle on the court, the players and fans began joining in on a Crow Victory Song that lasted for about 10 to 15 minutes. More tears followed, with fans using cellphones to record the moment, but the Bulldogs had the entire Crow Nation supporting them and what they just accomplished. Their victory was a community victory.
The mutual respect ran even deeper between the two. After the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse emptied and no one but media, the teams and custodial staff remained, Hardin and Central players left the building around the same time, exchanging laughs, high-fives and well-wishes among each other.
In three games, Hardin and Central showed us what makes sports great. From nail-biters, to their personal lives, to the off-the-court impacts these teams had in their respective communities, there was something for everyone. Because, hey, athletes are people too.
Their seasons are done. But their influences going forward are not.