HARDIN – Billings Central’s big men came up big Friday, and possibly none of them more so than Eric Fornshell.
Fornshell, a 6-foot-1 senior who’d missed six games with a blood clot in his lung, came off the bench to score 11 points and grab six rebounds as Central held off host Hardin 64-54 in the semifinals of the Eastern A basketball tournament.
His performance helped offset the Rams’ frigid free throw shooting and 22 points from Hardin’s Cameron McCormick, and sparked Central over that first-seed hurdle. Friday marked just the fourth time in 10 years the team with the first-round bye won its semifinal game.
Now the Rams (13-6) will take on Colstrip (11-9) in the 8 p.m. championship, in hopes of winning its first divisional crown in Gene Espeland’s 11 seasons as coach. The Colts held Glendive to 10 first-half points and beat the Red Devils 59-40 in Friday’s second semifinal, their seventh win in eight games.Central 64, Hardin 54Fornshell was just one of four players in double figures for the Rams, who also got 10 points and eight rebounds from 6-6 senior Zach Zimmerman, and nine points and seven blocked shots from 6-6 junior Pat Bailey.
“Our big guys saved us tonight – especially Eric, Zach and Pat Bailey,” said Espeland, who had top-seeded Central clubs lose in the semis – and miss state – last season and in 1999. “Just all had tremendous games. I thought this was the most competitive we’ve been all year. Against a very competitive, good, Hardin team.”
Fornshell scored seven points to key a big third quarter for Central, converting a short jumper and a three-point play to start an 11-0 run. Cooper Warren (11 points) and Dallas Leslie (10) capped the surge with 3-pointers, putting the Rams up 46-32 with 1:15 left in the period.
Fornshell’s durability was in question, but he played well enough when the Rams needed it to warrant more minutes. “He got tired, but he just fought right through it,” Espeland said. “I’m very happy for him.”
“It’s coming along,” said Fornshell, who, while being pain-free, will take a blood thinner for the next year to fight his condition. “The adrenaline was flowing. (Returning) was probably the most important thing about this senior season. You never realize how much you love something until you face never being able to do it again.”
After Central’s surge it was a matter of hitting free throws to hold off Hardin, which got five three-pointers from McCormick. The Rams survived by going 12-for-27 at the line in the final nine minutes of the game – enough to get past what has been the bane of many Eastern A teams.
“We faced it,” Espeland said of the bye. “We talked about it, and faced it. Just like our free throw shooting tonight – it was atrocious. We were lousy on free throws, but we’re facing it, and tomorrow we’re going to step up and hit them.”
“We knew what we had to do,” Fornshell said. “It’s been around for what, 10 years? We knew we had to come in and win this one, to have a chance.”
Hardin (8-12) takes on Sidney (6-14) in a loser-out game today at 9:30 a.m.Colstrip 59, Glendive 40The Colts started slow, including forward Matt Shahan, who missed his first eight shots. But Glendive was even slower, converting just three of 19 field goal attempts in the first half.
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And Colstrip found a spark in 5-foot-5 sophomore A.J. Strangeowl, who came off the bench and hit two 3-pointers to push Colstrip away from an early 4-3 lead.
In the second quarter, Strangeowl hit back-to-back bombs as the lead grew to 21-8 at the 3:36 mark.
“A.J.’s a stud,” said Shahan, who rallied to score a game-high 15 points. “If we’re down, he picks us up. He’s saved us defensively several times, and tonight he was huge on threes.”
had 14 points while Tuff Harris had 11, including a steal and reverse dunk that put the Colts up 27-10 at halftime. Glendive (12-8), which got nine points and eight rebounds from Grant Clingingsmith, never threatened in the second half.
The Red Devils will take on Miles City (8-11) in a loser-out game today at 11 a.m.
Colstrip went 0-2 against Central this season, including an 86-67 home loss on Jan. 19. The Colts are 7-2 since.
“Against Central, we weren’t a team,” said Shahan. “We kind of saw the light after that. It should be an awesome game. They’re playing well, too.”Sidney 59, Laurel 51Nelson Hilger scored 19 points, including three 3-pointers, to lead Sidney to a 59-51 loser-out victory over Laurel Friday afternoon.
Jay Sunwall added 12 points for Sidney, which play Hardin today in a 9:30 a.m. loser-out.
The Eagles, who outscored Laurel 18-11 in the fourth quarter to pull away, outrebounded the Locomotives 23-16, led by Nick Bawden’s six.
Laurel was led by Tyler Ready, who scored 13 points, and Jim O’Dea, who chipped in 12.Fritz Neighbor is a Gazette sports writer. He can be reached at 657-1396 or firstname.lastname@example.org