If it was going to be a battle of willpower, that was one fight the Billings Central girls basketball didn’t intend on losing.
And when Justyn Juhl made two free throws and Sammy Elliott another in the game’s closing seconds, the Rams had withstood a late Billings Senior charge for a 40-36 non-conference victory on Saturday night at the Nelles Activities Center.
The win was the sixth straight for the Eastern A Rams, and it also helped them avenge an earlier six-point loss to Senior of the Eastern AA. Central broke away from a 17-17 halftime tie to take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter, then held on despite scoring just five points in the fourth quarter.
Juhl finished with a team-high 12 points, while Erika Kuehn and Allie Lucas had eight points each as the Rams, ranked fifth in Class A, improved to 8-4. Melissa Koerber made her first start of the season and scored four points to go with a game-high seven rebounds.
“We kind of have a winning streak right now and it means a lot for us to keep that going,” said Kuehn, who played all 32 minutes for the second night in a row and made all three of her field goal attempts, including a 3-pointer late in the third quarter that gave Central a 30-24 lead. “It gives us more confidence to beat a AA school that is doing really well in their conference, too.”
Senior came into the game 10-2 and ranked fourth in AA, and the Lady Broncs led 24-19 early in the third quarter after two baskets by Katie Gorman and a 3-pointer by Marissa Van Atta. But Kuehn started and finished an 11-0 run and the Rams never trailed again.
Two 3-pointers from Jordyn Wagner and a basket from Jace Henderson got Senior within 37-36 with 32 seconds to play, but Juhl and Elliott iced the game for Central from the free throw line after that.
“This was for the pride of our school,” Juhl said. “It was really for each other. We’re really competitive and we all wanted to win this game. In the end, it was all for each other.”
The Rams, who needed to come from 16 points down on Friday night to beat Sidney, had just six players see court time. Coach Jeff Malby is limiting Elliott’s minutes after her recent concussion, Hadley Ryan isn’t playing back-to-back games as she comes back from a serious knee injury, and Baylee Hadley sat out with lower leg pain.
Those factors made this victory all the more impressive to Malby.
“When your goal is to win a state championship, you have to learn how to win those grind-it-out games,” Malby said. “There’s a difference between ugly and grinding it out. Defensively, Senior’s really, really, really good. They don’t give up a lot. So, you grind it out.”
Van Atta had a game-high 15 points to lead Senior. Wagner and McNeil added six points each as the Broncs lost for the second time in three games and fell to 10-3.
“Hey, Central came out and worked hard as a team,” Senior coach Doug Brakke said. “They wanted it more. They just flat outplayed us. We did some good things, too, but I just thought maybe Central wanted it a little more than we did. And it showed by how they worked.”