With offensive firepower at a premium, Thursday night’s final first-round game in the State A boys basketball tournament was begging for somebody to make a big shot.
Enter Kale Guldseth.
The 5-foot-10 junior knocked down a 3-pointer from the left wing with less than four minutes to play to give Butte Central just enough breathing room as they snuck past former Central A rival Belgrade, 39-34, at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
“I got a great double screen and a real nice look at the basket and was able to hit it,” Guldseth said. “It was a big shot for us at the time and it kind of relaxed us all a little bit.”
It was the final field goal for the Maroons, but it was all they needed as the Southwest A runners-up secured a spot in tonight’s semifinals against Eastern A champ Billings Central.
“Kale’s shot was huge,” said Maroons head coach Brodie Kelly. “That gave us some breathing room though and some momentum.”
Jered Bryant knocked down a pair of threes over the final 1:46 to keep the Panthers within striking distance as they got to within 34-31 on Brandon Karnath's layup with 1:13 to play but the Maroons went 8 of 14 from the free throw line in the final 2:56 to secure a spot in the "final four".
Thursday night’s meeting was a rematch of a game won by the Panthers in Belgrade on Feb. 5, 45-40, when they raced out to a double-digit lead in the games first 10 minutes.
“A month ago, our team was not this good defensively,” admitted Kelly. “They put up 23 points on us in a blink of the eye last time we played and we couldn’t recover.”
As efficient as the Panthers were in that meeting, they couldn’t seem to get on track Thursday night, shooting just 27 percent from the field and turning the ball over 16 times.
“Whether it was state tournament jitters or the myth of not being able to shoot in (the Metra) I’m not sure,” said Panthers head coach Mike Demming. “We really tried not to buy into those things and you have to give Butte Central’s credit they did a great job defensively tonight.”
Butte Central used a 7-0 run to open the game before the Panthers countered with a run of their own over the final 90 seconds of the opening quarter.
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After turning the ball over on six of their first seven possessions and missing their first four shots, Belgrade closed the quarter on an 8-0 spurt to take the a one-point lead into the second quarter.
"We held them scoreless for the majority of the first quarter but like Belgrade does they came storming back," said Kelly. "We knew we were going to be in for a battle all night and that points would be tough to come by."
Belgrade made just one field goal over the next 9:44 as both teams traded turnovers and missed shots but an 8-3 run capped by Jeremy Ragar's shot in the lane tied the game at 19 with 3:50 to play in the third.
Butte Central shot just 39 percent from the floor but made 15 of 25 free throws while Belgrade was just 3 of 3 from the line.
"We just didn't make shots tonight," said Deming. "Butte Central did a great job on the defensive glass, but it really came down to their free throw shooting. They got to the line and we didn't."
Butte Central outrebounded the Panthers 30-19 including hauling in 23 defensive boards.
Guldseth finished with a team-high 11 points including going 3 of 4 from the foul line in the final minute to push the Maroon lead back to six points, 37-31.
"To win a game when we score less than 40 points gives us all the confidence in the world," Guldseth said. "We know that even on a bad shooting night our defense is going to keep us in the game and that's what you need this time of year."
Butte Central is looking for their first title game appearance since 2008 -- also the last time the tournament was held at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark -- when they lost to Browning 72-52.
"Billings Central is an extremely athletic team and we're going to need to make shots to be successful," Kelly added. "Defensively, I know we'll be ready to go we just have to play smart basketball."
Belgrade, which is winless (0-4) at the State A tournament since their 2004 semifinal win over Dillon, will face Frenchtown at 2 p.m.