FRENCHTOWN — Hardin's first half of its first boys basketball game of the season Friday not only showed why Class A's reigning runners-up are again among the state's favorites. It also carried the Bulldogs to a 74-67 win against Hamilton at the Western A Tip-Off tournament in Frenchtown.
But the Broncs' second half — particularly their 30-point fourth quarter — showed they aren't willing to be so easily left out of the discussion.
Behind a stifling trapping press and standout senior Famous Lefthand, Hardin built a 20-6 first-quarter lead. Lefthand scored 14 of his team-high 23 points in the opening frame as the Bulldogs flummoxed Hamilton on both ends of the court.
"You know when Famous Lefthand's shooting, it just feels like it's going in," Hamilton senior Trey Searle said.
Added Hardin coach Andrew Roundface, "I trust him 100 percent. If my life was on the line and I needed to make a shot, I'd pick him."
Lefthand chose to facilitate in the second quarter, though, as the 6-foot-2 shooting guard set up fellow senior Peyton Good Luck for a pair of 3-pointers. Good Luck's second triple landed less than a minute before the end of the quarter and gave the Bulldogs a 36-15 lead — their largest of the half.
By the break, it was 38-19 and all Hardin.
"When we went into the locker room it was just, OK, everyone knows what varsity is like now, let's go show them what we actually have," said Searle, one of just two Hamilton returners with extensive varsity minutes.
It took a quarter — the Bulldogs maintained a 20-point advantage through three, 57-37 — but the Broncs broke through in the fourth. Searle led the way.
The senior scored a game-high 28 points for the Broncs with 15 coming in the fourth quarter. Searle, who is working to get his commercial pilots license, did most of his damage by opting to fly to the rim instead of dialing in from long range.
"Today wasn't a great shooting night, so I just decided I needed to take it to the hoop and draw as many fouls as possible," said Searle, who played through a bloody nose most of the fourth quarter.
The Broncs cut their deficit to 70-60 with a little more than a minute remaining as freshman Eli Taylor stole a Hardin pass to set up a Searle layup in transition.
Hardin's Cayden Redfield answered two possessions later, though, with an old fashioned three-point play to put his team ahead 74-61 and put the game on ice.
In came the subs, and Hamilton senior Tristan Hanson went 2-for-2 from 3-point range in the final 50 seconds. It both livened the sizable midday crowd at Frenchtown's gym and cut Hardin's lead to its smallest gap since the first quarter.
But the Bulldogs, who joined Glendive from the Eastern A for the West's opening tourney this weekend, took home the 'W' — as well as a teaching moment.
"It wasn't a nice (post game) message, but they have to learn," coach Roundface said. "...Even last season our second half has always been our downfall. We get too relaxed; we build these big leads and then when a team does fight back, our guys think they can turn it on and off and we can't (do that).
"Hopefully we do change it around because we're not going to make it very far if we play like we did the second half."
The Bulldogs of the season's first 16 minutes, though, certainly looked every bit the part of a state title contender. For the final eight minutes of Game 1, so did Hamilton.